A hard look at the ties that bind

A hard look at the ties that bind

Mar 01, 2007

If you could go back in time and out of body to watch yourself working at today's appointments, what would you see? The visits—20, 30, even more—would be quite a parade of people, animals, and needs, wouldn't they? Ill-mannered children acting like hooligans, cats strung out on the fight-or-flight response, passive owners intimidated by their aggressive dogs, elderly clients with only their pets for companionship—it's no wonder you feel tired. Actually, it's pretty amazing that you don't feel more exhausted.

While our work can be gratifying, it exacts an emotional and physical toll that doesn't always show up on a monthly profit-and-loss statement. Despite the fact that these emotional expenses are difficult to quantify, you can be sure they have a direct effect on the bottom line.

Reflecting on his relationships with others helped Dr. Gene Maxwell conquer burnout and learn he had a responsibility to, not for, others.
I became aware of these emotional costs a few years ago when I realized I was struggling with burnout. In my journey toward recovery from this emotional depletion, I obtained counseling from a psychologist experienced in helping healthcare professionals. I learned that it's crucial for us to understand our exact role in the exam room and avoid carrying the whole world on our shoulders. Such understanding helps us avoid emotional overdrafts and maximize our long-term profits.

Here's what we need to learn: We have a responsibility to, not for, the patients, clients, and team members we deal with every day. It may sound like semantics, but read on and you'll see what I mean.

The patient

The opportunity to work with animals is why many of us were drawn to veterinary medicine. Upon our admission to the profession, we took an oath that reflected our commitment to animals. As it has been said before, "Of all the people in the exam room, the veterinarian is the only person qualified to speak for the animal."

This is our responsibility as clinicians, and we fulfill this responsibility in two ways. First, we examine the pet and evaluate its health. Then we make clear recommendations to the owner. We also educate clients about the importance of complying with our recommendations. However, except in cases of criminal abuse or neglect, once we have completed our evaluation, recommendations, and medical work, we're done.

Notice that our responsibility is to the animal and not for the animal. That difference is significant.

Personal development: Retrain the brain
If, for example, one of your patients has an ongoing problem with obesity and you make yourself responsible for the pet, what are you going to do? Go home with the client and demonstrate appropriate feeding and exercise techniques? Conduct subsequent home inspections? Move in?

If we make ourselves responsible for our patients, time constraints alone will limit the number of patients we can accept—and the number of animals we can help. In spite of our professional expertise, the clients retain ownership of their pets and therefore bear final responsibility for them.

If this distinction isn't clear in our minds and we feel responsible for every animal placed in front of us, we risk overextending ourselves. We find ourselves providing care without being adequately (or even inadequately) compensated. We start seeing our hospitals as orphanages and adoption agencies, our bank accounts as finance centers for the uncreditworthy, and our staff members as in-home nursing care providers.