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The empathy-profitability link

Could combating the apparent lack of empathy in the profession boost practice profitability?

12 November 2018, at 8:21am

A truly empathic vet or nurse can directly increase profitability on a daily basis. In the November 2017 issue, I introduced the idea that there are three different kinds of empathy. In brief, the three types of empathy are:

  1. Cognitive empathy – this means that I understand the way your mind works, and I understand the language you use. I can communicate with you, reflecting back to you with the language you understand, and I can show you that I understand you.
  2. Emotional empathy – “I feel with you.” In other words, I can sense when you are happy, distressed, stressed or concerned, whether you have expressed those thoughts out loud or not.
  3. Empathic concern – the most powerful kind of empathy, empathic concern means that when I see that you are distressed, I have an overwhelming need to help you out.

As vets and nurses on the front line as regards customer care, we need to have all three kinds of empathy running at high levels if we are to offer the best service to our clients and the best care to their pets. Increased profitability naturally follows on from this. Cognitive empathy and emotional empathy combined could be called marketing. Empathic concern serves as the ethical rudder when marketing in our profession.

Cognitive empathy training improves our communication skills with clients and with each other. I can actively listen to the client; they feel listened to and understood. I can ask the right questions in a way that puts the client at ease and gets me the history I need. The client trusts me because they know that I can hear what they are saying. When I suggest options for diagnosis and treatment, because I am on their wavelength, they are more likely to proceed because of that trust.

When I discuss the client and their pet at handovers, hospital rounds, referrals, etc, I have an exact picture of their requirements. More importantly, because I can also understand the way my colleagues communicate and the varying ways that their individual minds work, we can all understand what the client wants, and I can hand this case over to my colleagues with confidence knowing that communication is excellent.

Emotional empathy, when running at high levels, enables me to see beyond the words that can be so hastily spoken in the consulting room, especially when stress levels are running high.

I can see and feel the emotions of the client and of their pet. By sensing emotions and putting them into words for the client: “I imagine you’re worried about the anaesthetic”, we create a rapport with them which further strengthens their trust and faith in us.

The body language of a pet owner can speak volumes about their fears, money concerns, sadness and even distrust. The vet and nurse with good emotional empathy can interpret body language and put it into words for the client. Profit wise, the nervous client may be reassured by more detailed pre-anaesthetic tests. The anxious client may feel less anxious if we are more in depth with our investigations. The stressed client may want their pet hospitalised rather than observed at home. If we offer, the client may take us up on it and be pleased that we thought to see beyond their words and “read their mind”. If they don’t take us up on what we offer, they are likely to feel the same degree of trust and relief that we felt their distress and offered what was appropriate to them at that time as opposed to a bunch of “extras” for the hell of it. Offering in the right way, at the right time shows good rapport rather than a thirst for commission.

Emotional empathy within a team creates strong bonds. We celebrate each other’s joy and offer support in times of need. We can feel when our colleague is swamped and doesn’t want to get involved in another case. Similarly, we can identify the team member who is eager to get involved and take the case forward appropriately.

Empathic concern is the type of empathy which we would wish all vets and nurses to have as a natural strong personality trait. Empathic concern is the kind of empathy which earns us five-star Google reviews, boxes of chocolate and fully paid bills. And it is the type of empathy which makes us truly compassionate people who gain pleasure each day from our work, despite the many daily events which could turn our mood in the other direction.

This is the vet who sees that the owner needs us to keep their pet overnight and offers it before the client has even realised it’s an option. It’s the nurse who senses the terror in their client and bumps their pet up to the top of the ops list, thus reducing their hours of anxious waiting to a minimum. Or the vet who makes it a matter of urgency to phone the client as soon as their pet is recovered from their anaesthesia, and if there is no answer, sends a reassuring text. It’s the nurse who phones the day after a procedure to see how the pet and client are, and the PCA who lets the owner know that we are aware that their pet likes ear scratches, neck massage, squeaky toys, etc.

In summary, while being aware of empathy in its various and wonderful forms and knowing how and why it increases profitability and work satisfaction, there is a sad lack of true, purist empathy within our profession. That is according to most of the 42 percent of vets who are seriously considering leaving the profession. In next month’s issue, I will focus on how to maximise empathy in yourself as a people manager and thus create a practice where all three kinds of empathy are running at full throttle throughout.

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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