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Communicating with your vet
Email etiquette

The internet, which has become a remarkable healthcare tool, is also changing the way veterinarians and their clients communicate with one another. These days, many folks want email access to their vets, and why shouldn’t they? Email communication between patients and their physicians is increasingly the norm, and many human health-care operations are fishing for new customers by marketing “email my doctor” programs. Kaiser Permanente leads the charge in this regard, and a recent study of thousands of their patients documented that those who communicated via email with their physicians enjoyed better health outcomes.

Do I think being able to email your vet is a reasonable expectation? You betcha! People who are comfortable communicating with their veterinarians become better medical advocates for their pets.

However, while the expectation of electronic interaction with your vet is reasonable, not all vets are on board quite yet. A recent unpublished survey of 120 northern California veterinarians revealed the following:
• 58% communicate with their clients via email.
• 62% of those using email are selective about which clients are given access.
• 26% of those using email set ground rules that describe when and how email is to be used. (Interestingly, of the remaining 74%, many indicated a desire to set email ground rules, but have not yet done so.)
• 95% of those using email reported it to be a mostly positive experience.

Vets responding to the survey commented on the convenience of email communication. Not only can it be less time-consuming than telephone tag, they like having the option of responding to email at any time of the night or day. I can certainly relate to this. I sometimes don’t finish up with my patients until well into the evening, at which point I’m concerned that it may be too late to return client phone calls.

Vets unanimously reported that email is great for simple, non-urgent communications, emphasis on nonurgent. Just imagine every vet’s worst nightmare: an email sent by a client early in the day — but not read until evening — describing a dog who is struggling to breathe. Oh, and by the way, the dog’s gums are blue. Here are some of the ground rules vets using email want their clients to abide by:
• Email is not to be used like instant messaging.
• There’s a one- to -two-day turnaround time for responses.
• No urgent matters.
• No “What’s your diagnosis?” questions.
• No “cutesy” emails (photos or stories that the sender deems to be funny or adorable).

Survey responders who aren’t using email reported a variety of reasons for not doing so, including poor word-processing skills, too much time needed to carefully edit their “written words,” inconvenience of transcribing the email communication into the medical record and a concern about clients abusing the system.

I happen to be a speed demon when it comes to word-processing, and I would love the flexibility of communicating with my clients at any time. That being said, why haven’t I fully jumped on the email bandwagon? So much of what is perceived during communication has to do with body language and voice inflection, neither of which can be transmitted in an email (though, God forbid, I suppose I could begin Skyping with my clients!). Using email, I worry that I will miss out on what’s going on with them emotionally. When I invite clients to email me, I’m clear that the questions should be really simple, such as: “When am I supposed to bring Lizzie back in to see you?” or “Is it okay to give Radar his heartworm preventive along with the other medications you prescribed?” Anything more complex and I’ll be on the phone in the blink of an eye.

If emailing your dog’s doctor appeals to you, I encourage you to ask about it the next time you visit your vet clinic. Anything that enhances communication between you and your vet is bound to be a good thing for your dog, and nothing’s more important than that!

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 66: Sept/Oct 2011

Nancy Kay, DVM, Dipl., American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is a 2009 recipient of AAHA's Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award and author of Speaking for Spot.

speakingforspot.com

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