Tame the abusive veterinary client

Misunderstandings and miscommunications can turn even the mildest clients into savage beasts. Learn how to soothe ruffled tempers and help clients sheathe their claws.
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May 01, 2012

They swipe and slash, claw and needle. They poke and prick and push and prod. Sometimes their roars make you angry. Often their bites hurt. We've all dealt with abusive clients, usually on a personal level. Like most creatures, even mild-mannered clients can attack when they feel cornered or confused. The following examples are real cases from my experience as a receptionist, a veterinary assistant, and finally a licensed technician. For each scenario I've encountered, you'll find an example of how my team responded to soothe the savage beast. Not all the stories have happy endings, but we did our best to handle the situation professionally and attempt to retain clients who proved they weren't repeat offenders.

Walk the tightrope

The scenario: The client who blames the team for his or her own mistakes

Mr. Knows Best blasts into the hospital snapping because he's already run through his two-week prescription of antibiotics for his beloved cat, Wigglesworth. When we try to soothe the client, we realize the 1 ml of medication that was to be given twice daily is actually being drawn up as 1.5 ml. It helps to defuse the situation by saying, "It's an easy mistake" and offering to, just this time, provide a free refill.

To avoid these situations, it's key to clearly show the correct dose with a syringe or tablet before the client leaves the exam room. It may be helpful to mark the syringe with a sharpie at the appropriate measurement or to pre-cut tablets. Not only will this prevent client errors, it will show you don't mind going an extra step for client satisfaction and ease. And don't forget, it's important for the doctor or technician to explain the possible side effects of an overdose.

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for clients to misunderstand or fail to follow your care instructions. Consider the case of Sammy the beagle. He comes in covered in ticks and experiencing lameness. Dr. Kind prescribes an antibiotic. A few weeks later, an enraged client storms into the waiting area, claiming Dr. Kind made Sammy even sicker, since he vomits daily on the medication and isn't showing signs of improvement. The client admits she administered the medication without food, despite the "give with food" label on the vial.

It may be difficult to defuse a situation like this, but it's important to avoid blaming clients if they've made an error that could potentially hurt their furred family member. In this situation the team apologized, even though they had offered proper instructions from the start. They explained Sammy was most likely not even keeping the medication down, so the client should try the medication again while giving it on a full stomach. Once the client understood what was happening with her pet, she was much calmer and willing to try again.

A quick note: To protect the practice from any unwarranted lawsuits, the hospital team should always make note in the client's record of verbal, as well as written, instructions and keep a copy of the prescription in the file. In this case, the direction to give with food should be included as part of the prescription.

Let's look at one more example of an angry client who didn't follow instructions. Mrs. Debbie Doesn't-Listen brings Max in with damaged pads from walking on hot pavement. After we clean up the pads, we bandage them and tell Mrs. Doesn't-Listen to place plastic bags over the bandages to keep them dry when it rains. Max visits the next day with soaked bandages that are barely staying on. Mrs. Doesn't-Listen is very upset. She yells at the team members who placed the bandages, saying, "You have no idea what you're doing."

In this case, it helped to have the doctor talk to the client and explain she'd personally watched the placement of the bandages, and it was performed thoroughly. She explained that the bandages did look wet and asked if the client placed bags on Max's feet when it rained. The client admitted she didn't, and the doctor calmly explained this is probably why the bandages weren't staying on. We offered to re-bandage and reminded her to cover the bandages with plastic bags. The client, in this case, willingly paid for the re-bandaging once she realized her mistake.