Improve Communication in Your Veterinary Practice With Case Studies

By using case studies, you can learn a lot about the impact of words.

La Jolla Veterinary Hospital team members in a class using as case.

Julie Brebner/La Jolla Veterinary Hospita

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About 12 years ago, I was asked to create case studies to help veterinarians enhance their interpersonal communication skills.

It’s clear to all veterinarians that they have spent many years focusing on science and medicine and need to continually keep up-to-date on medical advances or new specialties. This has left little time to focus on human behavior. Despite the fact that all of us communicate – and have since we entered this world – we aren’t always aware of what makes communication effective and what causes interpersonal tensions.

After being in business, dealing with clients of all types, and working closely with teammates of various ages and persuasions, veterinarians realize the need to increase their skills in communication.

So, I agreed to develop communication cases.  The endeavor turned out to be a partnership with my husband, John Meyer, who is a “communicologist” like me but who also has a background in theater arts. We created cases that deal with veterinarian-client relations and others that address interaction among team members. The case study strategy was consistent with our commitment to active learning and engagement in solving problems as the best way to learn to apply learnings to similar situations in the real world.

What Is a Case Study?

If you’re going to consider this way of learning, which we recommend, you’ll want to start by defining the case study.

We look at a case study as “a story with a problem in it.”  It’s a scenario, a drama, an example, a situation or maybe a narrative. It may be complex or simple, but the problem inside the story is usually somewhat difficult to answer. It’s one that requires reason, thought and consideration of various possible solutions.  Unlike medical cases, communication issues involve verbal and non-verbal behaviors that are layered. To understand the interaction and arrive at a solution, one must consider personality, culture, training, tradition and unconscious expectations.

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We think of a case study as “a tough nut to crack.” It’s almost as though the story has a tough question embedded inside the story’s “shell.”  Getting to the “meat” of the problem, one finds the route is often confusing and controversial. Finding clarity and possible solutions can be both enjoyable and enlightening.

The Use of Cases for Learning is Not New

Actually, case studies have provided a way of learning for centuries — beginning with parables and cautionary tales.  Then in the 1900s they crept into the classroom. The Harvard Business School cases have been used by schools the world over. And I’m sure you have encountered cases in your veterinary medical training.

As we considered the case study model for studying communication, we attended a medical convention. We witnessed participants lined up behind computer monitors in the convention hall responding to medical case studies. After participants gave their input into the case, the computer program allowed them to compare their input with scores of other participants from all over the country.  What a great way to study and learn — challenge knowledge or lack of it with the experience of others.

So, we set about creating a low-tech version of this learning strategy to increase awareness of communication issues and explore alternative ways to enhance communication.

Steps in Using Case Studies

Because communication skills are important to the success of every practice, and because the use of case studies is an enjoyable way to learn, we encourage you to give it a try.

To get started, consider the following steps:

  1. Identify an issue you’d like to explore. It might be related to client engagement, or it might be related to the interaction among your team members. 
  2. Write a case or discover a case.  If you create a case, you will find that team members are more willing to be honest and forthcoming if it is does not exactly deal with a real situation in your practice.  Instead, create a realistic (but not real) situation that MIGHT take place in your practice and would reveal some of the issues that challenge your team.

    An alternative is to choose one of the printed case studies, which we authored in Communication Case Studies: Building Interpersonal Skills in the Veterinary Practice, published by the American Animal Hospital Association.

  3. Once you have the case, see that each person in your team has the same printed version.
  4. Choose a spokesperson to read the case out loud for the team. A fun alternative is to assign a variety of readers to read the various character dialogues. If you get your team members into the act, you could have one person read the explanatory parts of the case and other team members role play, coming in on the dialogue or acting out their parts.
  5. After reading the case, invite everyone working in dyads or triads to discuss the case. What is the problem (or problems) illustrated by the case?   What caused the problem(s)?  Where did the responsibility lie? 
  6. Following a general discussion and a good awareness of the problem(s), invite everyone to consider possible solutions.  What could have been done differently?  How could the players go forward to improve the situation?
  7. Invite everyone to consider the advantages and disadvantages to each solution mentioned.
  8. Explore what communication skills were missing.  What kind of communication skills could enable the interaction to be more effective?
  9. If possible, compare your solutions with those of experts. The cases in Communication Case Studies are followed by comments from two or more experts. If you create your own case, you might invite a communicologist to listen to your discussion and add his or her perspective. 

Benefits of Using Cases

Given that we all have developed communication patterns from childhood, some of those patterns may not be effective. Watching other people fall into problems – even through the case study — we can often see what has gone wrong

When you use case studies in your veterinary practice, you will see an improved awareness of the impact of words and communication behaviors. Following training at The Ark Animal Hospital in San Diego, the Office Manager Heather Heath reported some of the comments from her staff, who said that it was “entertaining and useful at the same time,” “very motivating,” and it “gave appropriate representations of common issues with clients and staff.”

You will also identify some missing skills and want to take time for communication skill building — either as a team or with team members attending regional conferences. Julie Brebner, DVM, the owner of La Jolla Veterinary Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., devoted a series of her staff meetings to case studies, followed by skill-building workshops. One of her team members stated in a post-workshop evaluation, “The activity was helpful to introduce the staff to a way to work on the practice’s communication…unique and enjoyable and great potential for our practice.”

An added bonus is the team building that takes place. The interaction among team members as they read and discuss the cases often results in a new opportunity for your team members to bond.

Try it. You’ll like it!

Carolyn C. Shadle, Ph.D., is the co-owner of ICS Workplace Communication ( ). Shadle was awarded her Ph.D. by the State University of New York at Buffalo in interpersonal and organizational communication and has trained managers and team members in businesses as diverse as General Mills and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems. She is a certified Myers-Briggs assessor and trained with Gordon Training International. Find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest.

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