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A Veterinarian’s Humility Is Just As Important As His/Her Competence

Veterinarian Examining Dog


My main area of expertise in my career has been dogs and cats with a smattering of rabbits and small mammals.  Thus, when my trusted associate joined my practice in 2012, an excellent veterinarian who in addition to dogs and cats brought with him a strong background in exotics medicine – most notably ferrets – the dynamic of my practice suddenly changed.  We went from dogs and cats admixed with the occasional rabbit, guinea pig, gerbil, or hamster, to now having every manner of critter in our waiting room; including a lot of ferrets.

One of our most important ferret clients is a lady named Jenny, a person with a passion for these delightful creatures and runs a ferret rescue from her own home.  Although we get along very well, with many years of experience treating ferrets, Jenny almost always sees my associate; as she should.  However, with the number of ferrets she cares for, medical crises sometimes occur where I am her only option, as my associate is not in the hospital all of the time.  Holding Jenny and her efforts in high regard, I gladly will step in and do what I can during these circumstances, utilizing the best of my ability to interpret physical examination and diagnostics (many of which share strong similarities to dogs and cats), while having the HUMILITY to rely on invaluable feedback from Jenny, a person who in addition to being very intelligent, has life long experience caring for ferrets.  Together, Jenny and I work through these cases with mutual respect and humility, and as a result, my comfort level and expertise with ferrets continues to increase as the result of our combined effort.

Humility is not just important for species or branches of medicine a veterinarian may not have extensive experience with, but extends to all facets of a veterinarian’s dynamic, including a willingness to consider feedback from owners, technicians, and fellow veterinarians.  I cannot tell you how often I have amended a diagnostic or treatment course based on feedback I have gotten from a particularly knowledgeable clients, technicians, or from feedback I have gotten from veterinary colleagues.

All too often, veterinarians and physicians alike take questioning of their recommendations or feedback from owners and co-workers as insulting, or a questioning of their competence.  This kind of attitude and stance not only upsets the doctor-patient-client relationship, but also may serve to alienate co-workers that are invaluable contributors to patient care.  Most importantly, it may cause a veterinarian to dismiss valuable feedback that may lead to a reduced standard of care.

Let us not confuse humility with lack of confidence.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  In my experience, veterinarians that exhibit the most humility are the ones that tend to have the most confidence and competence.  They know that they are good at their craft, but also recognize that they are human and therefore not perfect, and may benefit from feedback from others, including non-medically trained clients.

Clients are commonly way off base with their assumptions or preconceived notions they have about a case, these days most commonly emanating from erroneous information gathered from the internet.  But that is okay; as paying customers of my practice and people who must advocate for their furry friends who have no voice, it is their prerogative to be heard respectfully.  If their sentiments are not something I agree with, I politely explain why I opine differently from a physiological, medical, or research based perspective.  My clients are always assured that they may feel free to ask questions, have an opinion, and know that they will never be dismissed.

However, humility must be a two way street.  Many an owner, who may have a human medical background or experience as breeder, groomer, etc., has been guilty of at least giving the impression that they may know more than their attending veterinarian.  Situations such as these not only lead to frustration on the part of the veterinarian, but also may adversely affect patient care.  Clients that close themselves off to the recommendations of a veterinarian because of their own lack of humility, often decline important diagnostics or treatment that the patient would likely be benefitted from.

Thus, be selective in choosing your veterinarian who toes the line of having optimal competence, while exhibiting humility.  However, always remember that respect is a two way street and that your own humility must be returned in kind for you and your pet to enjoy optimal results and patient care.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care.

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