How To Reduce Telephone Time in Equine Practice
Mary Beth Whitcomb, DVM, MBA, ECVDI (LA-Associate), Professor Emerita at the University of California (UC), Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, is well-known for her extensive expertise in equine ultrasonography and previously served as the clinical director at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. During the 2022 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Nov. 18-22 in San Antonio, Texas, she shared her findings related to excessive client communication and its toll on practitioners. She also discussed what can be done to make client communication more efficient and less taxing.
Whitcomb explained that excessive unbilled phone time contributes to reduced well-being, reduced salaries, and possibly increased attrition from equine practice. She noted that this was especially true for residents, as communication at all hours interfered with personal time, including eating and sleeping. Phone calls lasting 30 to 60 minutes were not unusual, and practitioners would often feel the need to make duplicate phone calls regarding the same patient.
Based on her experience at private practices while traveling to do ultrasonography education, Whitcomb noted that private practitioners suffer from the same issues. Clients and nonclients alike make “information calls” seeking free advice at all hours of the day and night.
Whitcomb emphasized that she doesn’t want to diminish the importance of necessary client communications. “We need to be more efficient at communication, not worse at it,” she said. She observed that in equine practice, time on the road can play into inefficiencies. Talking to clients for long periods while driving teaches them they have unlimited time to ask questions. Accessibility via smartphones, social media, private messaging, texting, and email has led to the expectation of immediate responses.
Recognizing that phone time has opportunity costs is key. That cost can be anything from missing appointment opportunities to catching up on records to having personal downtime. “When we give away our time, it devalues our expertise,” said Whitcomb.
In comparison, small animal practice has better established client boundaries; often, the sheer number of patients per day precludes prolonged conversations. Clients also have reduced accessibility to the veterinarians in that it is unusual for them to know or use a doctor’s private contact information. “We can retrain our clients” in this model, Whitcomb said.
It’s important to recognize the emotional drivers of excessive communication for veterinarians. Is it a desire to be liked by the client? A belief that answering every question will earn client respect and loyalty? A desire to please the practice owner? A desire to retain the client at all costs? Changing communication requires a change in behavior from veterinarians and clients alike. “Reducing the quantity of communications does not reduce their quality,” stressed Whitcomb.
To start, set time goals for calls. Look at the clock before dialing the phone, and plan an exit. Learn to frame the call: “I’m in between appointments and have just a few minutes to give you an update.” Learn from doctors who are naturally good at efficient conversations – listen to the words they use. Practice before dialing a difficult client.
Whitcomb recommends having a communications policy for the practice that applies not only to doctors but to everyone answering phones. “It can be a one-page, simple document,” she said, which establishes clear expectations. It should include preferred and allowed method(s) of communication, a personal cell phone policy, emergency communication procedures, appropriate hours of communication, and behavioral expectations of clients. It can also cover things like frequency of communications from clients and from the veterinary clinic; more than one or two calls per day is probably too much, depending on the case. Prolonged phone calls should be transitioned into appointments.
Whitcomb concluded that equine practitioners should remind clients, and themselves, that excessive communication interferes with our ability to care for all our patients. And while client communications are essential, quality and quantity are not necessarily related. Placing a focus on communication efficiency can improve a veterinarian’s well-being and value to clients and colleagues.
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