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“Each of those working in the practice have an equally valuable part to play”

03 September 2020, at 9:00am

There are few things in life that make me really annoyed, but one that really riles me is the pet owner who you hear tearing strips off the receptionist because they’ve been waiting for 15 minutes while you're dealing with a difficult case in the list before them. Moaning about the time they are wasting when they have such a busy life, complaining that the seats in the waiting room are uncomfortable and how much longer will they be sitting here...? And then they come into you and are all sweetness and light. “Oh don't worry for the delay, we understand you're really busy. Thanks for seeing us in any case...” The same happens when they are talking to the nurse – it's a different kettle of fish completely when it comes to us as the veterinary surgeon, and yet it shouldn't be at all.

Each of those working in the practice have an equally valuable part to play, whether it's the receptionist answering the phone or the kennel assistant cleaning up the faecal explosion that accompanies the dog in with vomiting and diarrhoea. But is it seen that way?

Not from a remuneration perspective, certainly, and maybe that's to be expected. We have spent five or six years at university studying while the nursing assistant is new from school. We are there out of hours for the client – or am I living in the pre-corporate world when we are there to take calls from worried owners late into the evening, a time that some new graduates see as being ancient history?

It's the kennel cleaner who sits with the dog after the operation, cradling its head in her lap and stroking it to relieve its woes while we are onto the next surgical challenge.

Receptionists are so important as the first voice the caller on the phone hears. A brusque uninterested word or two will put any caller off, while a caring response just encourages a potential client to bring their pet to the practice. But do the people we employ to answer the phone know how important they are?

I often ring one of the practices I visit on my ambulatory ophthalmology referral service to tell them that I'm sorry that I've been delayed and I'm going to be a few minutes late, to be answered by Marjory who picks up the phone and responds to me by saying “Hello – it's only reception” to which I tell her that no, she is not “only” a receptionist – she is a key worker, to use a term we're all used to these days, in that practice at least. And thankfully, after a few tens of times telling her that, she has now changed her tune!

In fact, using the term the key worker has made me realise that in these COVID times perhaps people have become less demanding and more understanding. Asking a vet who was walking past as I was writing this what she thought, she said “Maybe... but there are an equal number who have gone the other way and got more annoying!” Ah… maybe I've just got my rose-tinted specs on again!

It was Martin Seligman who first coined the term positive psychology in 1998, although interestingly he had done his early work on learned helplessness in dogs who did not seem to recognise opportunities to avoid or escape from unpleasant experiences. His book The Hope Circuit tells his story, as it says on the front cover, “from helplessness to optimism” which is enough to make you want to read it, isn't it? And maybe that strap-line would be a good one for the present COVID times!

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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