What doctors, managers, and employees can learn from veterinarians

Grace and I left the vet’s office with a lot of documented instructions, some that went above and beyond what was expected, such as driving instructions to and from the nearest emergency vet clinic.

“Let’s insist on getting medical care as good as our dogs get!”

That was a statement made in the most recent post from the Patient Safety Blog, a forum dedicated to keeping us all safe from medical errors in our healthcare system. (I highly recommend this wonderful blog if you’re interested in learning more about the important topic of Patient Safety.)

This particular post from last Friday suggested that healthcare practitioners follow a simple and low-cost process of issuing written instructions for patients, a practice more common with veterinarians. Since most healthcare facilities are now using electronic medical records (EMR), it shouldn’t be difficult to do. Given the implications of serious medical complications that could arise if someone doesn’t understand or remember what to do, the benefits far outweigh any downside of figuring out a process to produce these instructions.

Some of you may recall the recent visit I made to the holistic vet when I was trying to sort through Grace’s dietary issues. As part of that visit, the vet offered a homeopathic remedy for the seizures that Grace has. I received thorough, detailed written instructions to remind me of what we discussed. She had even documented driving instructions to the nearest emergency clinic for any after hours situations. But it didn’t stop there. The instructions included how to get home! Presumably, once you arrived at the clinic, you’d know how to return, but she said, if it’s after hours, it’s likely dark, and you’re probably overwhelmed and stressed. She felt it was much better to have things clear and easy, precisely because you already have a lot on your mind. And she’s right. Even if you don’t have to look at the directions, it’s a good feeling to know you can.

Any business has risks when people fail to comply with delegated assignments. Patient safety is certainly an obvious one in the healthcare field. Other visible examples include automobile and medical device manufacturers that produce products with significant safety impact if processes are not clear and/or not followed.

But even if the process isn’t life-threatening, it can be a frustrating experience. My husband shopped for greeting cards, among other items, at a local store on Saturday. After getting home, he realized that the small bag had been left behind; he called and spoke to the service desk who found the cards and agreed to hold them until the next day. However, when I got there on Sunday afternoon, they couldn’t find the cards and assumed an employee had put them back on the shelves! They had taken the time to hand-write the 15 digit-SKUs from each of the three cards in the spiral-bound holder labeled “LEFT BEHIND BOOK” but no one had made the simple notation that we were coming back to retrieve (we had already paid for them after all!). Seems to me it would have been easier to skip the documentation of which cards were in the bag, but rather put a sticky note outside the bag that said, “Customer returning on Sunday for pick-up.”

Following this trail was easy, given how frequently the blue diamond markers were placed. You can see two in the short distance shown in the photo!

On Sunday, we went for a walk with friends who have two small children. Their three-year-old son was leading us on the hike because he remembered — after just one walk several weeks ago — to look for the blue diamond markers that would show him the way to go. Documentation doesn’t have to be long and verbose to be effective. In fact, simple trumps complicated every time.

So what’s the importance of written documentation? What’s your opinion? Do you think it’s worth documenting hand-offs? Or do you see it as a waste of time?

Can you think of times when your work was impacted by the presence (or absence) of work instructions?

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  1. Laurie Bartolo on April 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Hi Robin! This post really hit home with me – as someone who has spent a lot of time at the vet’s office and at the people doctor, I can tell you, they are worlds apart. I had a number of problems following a recent surgery – better communication would have saved me a lot of anxiety and unnecessary trips back to the doctor. In my case, I was on major pain killers, so having something in writing would have been great since I couldn’t remember anything the doctor told me the day of surgery! On the other hand, my vet provides a lot of detailed written instructions which is important since my dogs can’t talk to me and tell me what’s going on with them. The instructions let me know what to look for and what to do if it happens. In the workplace, I’ve seen many problems that stem from either overly-vague or overly-complicated written materials. Employers and managers would do well to provide simple, jargon-free, clearly written communication on important topics. By the way, I loved your radio interview!

    • Robin on April 4, 2012 at 7:17 am

      Laurie, it’s really interesting to hear your confirmation of how drastic the differences are between people and animal doctors. Especially with your very recent and significant experience following your surgery. And you know I also appreciate your vast HR expertise. “Overly-vague” and “overly-complicated” are descriptions of communications that I image you have seen many more times than necessary. (Thanks for listening to the radio interview, too!)

  2. LeeAnn on April 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Hey Robin – I loved your radio interview!! Congratulations!

    I have been thinking about this post for several days. The level of care and compassion we have received from our veterinarian has always touched me to my core. Your holistic vet sounds like the same type of person – the thoughtfulness of the detailed information that she provided is incredible. It reaffirms in me as to why I love animal people. Hope all is well with you, Grace and family!

    • Robin on April 4, 2012 at 7:19 am

      Thanks so much, LeeAnn. It is cool that the compassion people have for animals can so easily spill over to other areas. I certainly see that as a main trait of yours!

  3. Lionel Lloyd on April 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    This post has hit home for me. I for one, go out of my way to let my customers know that when my job is done, if they have any questions at all about my work then call me. Nothing is too small to discuss. Don’t ever feel that something is too insignificant to just let it go. Communication for me is key. Even though it almost 100% of their misunderstanding of something, just knowing that I will always be there no matter what puts their mind at ease.

    • Robin on May 2, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      That’s my motto — you cannot over-communicate. But you can definitely under-communicate, can’t you?!

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