Do you want a vet with a great 'bedside' manner'¦or do you want a great vet?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: October 15, 2008
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Some vets are charming soft-talkers who recruit your involvement in your pet’s care with their winning, whitened smile and a penchant for flattering, incandescent lighting. 

Others might well be better vets (or not)…but their delivery leaves much to be desired.

We vets can’t always be all be all things to all people. But some clients demand the whole package—on every visit. And that’s not always going to happen. In fact, it almost always won’t.

Case in point: The client I referred to a local internist yesterday. After explaining that her dog required a higher level of care than I could provide, I sent her to see my favorite internal medicine diagnostician with caveats in hand about expenses, wait-times, etc.

Immediately after her visit to the specialist (still in the hospital’s parking lot), she calls me on my day off to complain about the guy I sent her to see. Here’s the list:

1)    He couldn’t tell me what was wrong with Fluffy

2)    His staff wanted me to pay as soon as I agreed to the estimate for the tests he wanted to do

3)    I won’t be allowed to be next to Fluffy during all the tests

4)    He was kind of mean

Granted, my preferred internist can be somewhat gruff at times. But it’s also pretty clear that her expectations were unreasonable. So here’s where I get to my point:

A vet with a brilliant bedside manner can usually set anyone at ease on the first three points. After all, it’s only a matter of explaining why the policies are in place and pointing out the obvious: “We’re trying our hardest to find out why Fluffy is sick. Unfortunately, her situation is complicated and we need to run tests. I know you understand that—otherwise Dr. Khuly wouldn’t have recommended that Fluffy see us.”

But all that’s easier said than done. When an owner is being [even understandably] demanding despite your every attempt to relax him/her, it’s easy to get annoyed and abandon the bedside decorum you know would serve you—and the pet—best.

Which brings me to point number four:

It’s really hard for vets to keep it together 100% of the time—and for some vets it’s tougher than for others. Some of the best vets I know, clinically-speaking, don’t always handle clients really well. Yes, they can seem “mean” at times.

In fact, that’s sometimes why vets go into specialized medicine: They prefer a more academic, scientific path. They want to take on more challenging cases that require more patient-specific face-time. They don’t usually like spending as much time as generalists do on easing your mind and making sure you’re satisfied. In many cases they’re well aware they don’t have the patience or the skills for the human side of their practice.

But does that mean they can’t do what needs to be done to cure Fluffy better than anyone else out there? Nope.

When I go to a specialist for my own healthcare I know I’ll be waiting longer in the waiting room. I know I’ll be paying more. And I definitely know that my doc won’t appear to care about me as much as my general practitioner does. Of course I expect explanations. But I don’t expect a stellar bedside manner.

In my case even the general practitioner I’ve selected is a crotchety older woman with a notoriously caustic tongue. And why do I put up with it? Because I’ve come to learn that she’s good…real good.

So why is it so hard for some clients to accept that sometimes the best vet won’t the one who will put you immediately at ease?

She won’t always make you laugh. He won’t typically spend thirty minutes explaining things or take the time to write his cell phone number on the back of his business card for your personal use. She won’t necessarily smile or even say good-bye in a personable way. He might even lack for personal hygiene.

Nope. Most won’t inspire automatic confidence in the James Herriot sort of way we might like. Some vets will even treat you [almost] like dirt—as in, you’re there but you’re not why she’s bending over to smell the flowers. She’s all about your oh-so-aromatic pet.

And isn’t that ultimately what you want?

So here’s my recommendation the next time you see a new vet: If you can find it in yourself to trust the person who referred you just long enough to figure out if this cranky vet’s poor bedside manner is worth it…you might just realize you’re in the same room with the greatest veterinarian on planet Earth.