They have highlighted a remaining issue that stands, and that is veterinary abuse and veterinary “bashing.” It’s when there’s an instance or litany and continuous stream of physical or online berating and abuse against veterinary staff.
What’s concerning is how easy it is for it to occur, especially with the multitude and accessibility of platforms available whether that is Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn or otherwise. It’s not even close to managing negative customer experience reviews about your businesses’ service, it’s more than that; it’s where customers are creating an intolerable environment, are potentially aggressive, dangerous and can be traumatising for veterinary staff. It can cause anything from fear, loss of confidence, absence from work, reduced employee satisfaction and more. Additionally, veterinary practices are obviously worried about clients complaining in public via social platforms where it can harm reputation and business itself.
Earlier in 2022, the British Veterinary Association reported that 1 in 2 vets working in clinic practice experienced online abuse in the last year alone.
And last year, “57% of vets in clinical practice reported that they had felt intimidated by clients’ language or behaviour over the past year, an increase of ten percentage points since the same question was asked in 2019.” 
Managing contributing factors and change
The rise of unwelcome (and unacceptable) behaviour is undoubtedly from the perfect storm of the global staff shortage, Covid-19 and now…the cost of living, inflation and a potential global recession. What’s been aptly pointed out from Veterinary Voices is how money can often be the root cause of client upset. For veterinary care, it is costly and pet parents simply do not have the disposable income or funds to care for their pets. And hence they may get upset for personal reasons, but this is channelled and directed toward the vet, for example, if their pet dies or is euthanised. And even though that would have been the best course of action for the pet regardless, the client may blame the veterinary clinic or staff, and then chaos ensues. Extreme examples mean that a clinic may be sued for negligence.
Danny Chambers, Senior Vet and trustee of Vetlife says,
“Whether the animal lives or dies, the cost of treatment to the business is the same. But the mixture of grief, loss and the financial burden to the client can stir huge emotions leading to a complaint.”
It is a good idea to keep on top of macroeconomic changes and look at the factors that are contributing to change in the first place. In our blog on change management, we help you identify how to view and manage change internally and externally.
Processes, leadership, ownership and staying vigilant will keep you well prepared and equipped to deal with seemingly unforgiving or relentless and unpleasant forces.
How to minimise trolling, abuse or social shaming
You may be wondering how it’s possible to minimise or reduce the veterinary “bashing” and abuse if you have minimal control over external circumstances, but there are a few things you can do:
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Do not respond to abusers online out of emotional upset. Often you can reply privately in a professional manner to the triggered customer or person to offer a resolution or acknowledgement. Most of the time, it’s best to deal with it offline.
- Download BVA’s toolkit on how to end the abuse of veterinary professionals. You can download posters to be displayed in waiting rooms. It includes a social media kit to encourage clients to treat vet teams with respect. #respectyourvet
- Empower your teams to speak up and communicate with managers at any time. Veterinary staff should feel safe to talk about issues and complaints with their senior reports, without them thinking it has an impact on their career. That way, the business can problem solve as a team. It is often therapeutic too, for vets to feel safe, understood, comforted and protected.
- Make your complaints policy visible and simple to use so that clients can use this route before complaining online.
- Take care of your staff’s well-being and mental health. There are many charities that can assist in any issue and are the reason for existing. Love Your Pet, Love Your Vet is a key charity and support organisation. Danny Chambers, a senior veterinary surgeon and trustee of Vetlife, talks about mental health in our podcast, dealing with mistakes and compartmentalising. Unless the same vet has numerous complaints against him or her, it’s not usually that person’s fault. It is important the individual compartmentalises and doesn’t take the emotional toll home. Being a vet is hard enough as it is, let alone dealing with guilt, shame, doubt or anger from a client.
- Offer flexibility to clients who are having difficulty with their finances. Pet health care plans or suitable treatment plans, integrated insurances, strategic offers and promotions will be a win-win for the veterinary clinic and the client.
It’s also worth remembering the inextricable link between employee engagement and customer satisfaction as people in customer-facing roles, which is most of the veterinary staff, want to do the right thing. Cheering and trust-building will be important for your business, transparency and goodwill, often goes a long way. Without dismissing the reality of already hard done by consumers in this global climate, complaints and abuse can feel like it’s unavoidable, however conscious efforts and a problem-solving ethos that is well communicated and displayed might be your saviour.
Gillian Sandsrom, Director of the Centre for Research on Kindness, in an article from the Guardian states:
“We’re naturally egoistic, and we all have to exert conscious effort to take someone else’s perspective into account. If we don’t make an effort to do that, [a tense exchange] is the kind of thing that’s going to happen. These precious friendly encounters that people once took for granted, were one of the things we lost during the lockdowns, and it doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to see how that could have fed into those rising abusive situations.”
“a lot of times when we lash out – it’s coming from fear, and if people feel socially anxious, that could turn into frustration and anger.”
The importance of equipping the team with the skills to handle the highly emotive situations backed up by clear and effective policies to follow cannot be understated. Covetrus’, training experts Crampton Consulting Group offer a great range of online short courses to support your team’s skills in the area of handling difficult and emotive situations including diffusing anger. To find out more, visit their website.
Having pragmatic empathy for customers can help, but it’s also understandable if your practice takes a hard line and rightly so, on abusive behaviour. If all policies, posters and complaint procedures don’t do the trick, then it’s probably the customer that is out of line. And like BVA’s toolkit advises- threatening, abusive or offensive language physically or online may be a criminal offence and if you need to, you can contact the police or social media channels to report your concerns.
 Source: British Veterinary Association, BVA calls on animal owners to ‘think before they type’ as statistics show 1 in 2 vets exposed to online abuse, April 2022