Compassion Fatigue in Veterinary Medicine: 5 Things to Know in 2020

By: Amy Garrou, DVM

Being a veterinarian can seem like an impossible job on most days. Who else is expected to be a dentist, a dermatologist, an orthopedic specialist, a cardiologist, a surgeon, an oncologist, a radiologist and a mind reader—with a patient that can’t talk?

Veterinarians are often perceived as honest, caring, selfless, hard-working and creative problem-solvers (think James Herriott). But our educational debt has climbed at the exact time clients have pushed back at high costs for extremely specialized care. Animal owners want it all—but they don’t want it to cost too much.

COVID-19 has only added to the challenges. However, the pandemic presents an incredible opportunity for us, as a profession, to work on our boundary-setting and our people-pleasing natures. It’s an opportunity to have perspective on what we can and cannot control. And it is an opportunity for us to take care of ourselves so that we can care for others.

People are spending more time at home with their animals, and the human-animal bond has probably never been stronger. Realize that the service we provide to people is absolutely essential, as it helps the mental health of our human clients just as much as it helps the physical health of our animal patients.

Things to Consider:

1. Self-care has never been more important.

Try to find something that restores you as we get through this pandemic marathon. I personally have found a brief 2-5 minute meditation first thing in the morning to be very helpful (the Calm app is great, but there are a lot of great ones out there). However, if meditation isn’t your thing, I’ve also found reading (not the internet, and not about COVID-19!) to be helpful. Exercise with online guided classes or even a morning walk or jog is also incredibly mind-clearing. Whatever it is, make sure it is something that you can maintain—and set a routine to do it every day. Remember that you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others. Self-care isn’t selfish: it’s necessary!

2. Practice empathy.

Compassion fatigue may look different now, and your team may be manifesting it in new ways: making mistakes, being more withdrawn, or having problems focusing and staying on task. Recognize the signs of isolation, anxiety and stress.

As leaders, veterinarians should make a practice of checking in on their teams and work to maintain connection in this environment. A simple check-in and “Hey, are you having a rough day?” can go a long way with your team. Patience and understanding with each other are paramount.

COVID-19 impacts our clients as well. Many are experiencing financial strain, and that affects their ability to pay for veterinary care. Some clients are delaying elective items, putting off things that are not urgent. Realizing that clients are dealing with their own anxiety and stress helps us to not absorb all the responsibility for things beyond our control.

3. Telemedicine is both a facet of self-care and for extending care to our patients.

It has become increasingly important to address patients remotely, and has increased our client loyalty during this isolating time. I like to think of telemedicine as a client gratitude-builder during COVID-19, and suspect the trend will continue far beyond the pandemic. It’s also important to recognize that placing value and receiving income for client-driven telemedicine consults is a really good thing for us as a profession. Telemedicine actually helps us set appropriate boundaries with client requests and consultations so that we stop giving away our time and expertise for free.

Clients really love to be a part of the appointment and are so appreciative to be able to watch during the exam.

4. Curbside is another consideration in preventing compassion fatigue.

The practice is here to stay. We have transitioned private practice completely to in-patient drop-off and curbside protocols, and it does not appear that we are going back to anything resembling “normal” in the near future. Many veterinarians are discussing maintaining curbside protocols until at least the end of 2020, and perhaps longer.

While curbside could be a complicating factor, with a lot of walking between the office and car, it can also be an opportunity to streamline workflows and reduce stress. Using a telemedicine platform to connect with clients during curbside appointments has been exceedingly helpful as well. Utilizing a video conference app (my practice uses TeleVet) to take a history, ask questions, and perform an exam in front of the client is far more efficient and less time-consuming than going back-and-forth on the phone throughout the curbside appointment. It has also been a great practice-builder for new patients to feel “connected” to the appointment, even though they are parked outside.

5. Have Patience.

I’ve developed a kind of internal mantra during COVID-19 that has been helpful: I can do anything for a short while. That needs repeating: I can do anything for a short while. It helps me remember that this pandemic will eventually pass. And when it does, I believe our teams and our practices will be stronger and more committed than ever before.

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