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by Cherie T. Buisson, DVM, CHPV
Certified Hospice and Palliative Care Veterinarian
Originally published on DrAndyRoark.com

A recent discussion about online reviews led me to an epiphany. I think much of the mental health crisis in veterinary medicine stems from feelings of helplessness. We are consistently at the mercy of others and feeling forced to act against our will. While some of these scenarios are just part of the job, there are others that we can and should do something about.

1. We are definitely at the mercy of nature.
No matter how much we know, no matter how excellent we are, sometimes pets get sick and die. We feel like we should have been able to do something. There are times when the devastated owners tell us we have failed and threaten us as a result of their grief. The process by which we can be threatened has become far easier thanks to the internet. All complaints have to be addressed, even if they are completely ridiculous. This can take a year or two, leaving the veterinarian in anguish until a decision is made. If satisfaction can’t be gained there, we are tried in the court of public opinion.

2. We are at the mercy of the internet.
Word of mouth is a whole new ballgame nowadays. What in the past would have been gossip spread more slowly in person can now reach literally millions of people in a very short amount of time. People not at all involved and lacking the facts can weigh in without any consequences. Online reviews can be completely false and still remain prominent. We are instructed by the experts to “take it offline” and “don’t fight back”. We sit, helpless, unable to defend ourselves. Our clients know this and will deliberately threaten a bad review if they don’t get their way. If our great clients decide to defend us, their reviews can be labeled as spam and hidden from view.

3. We are at the mercy of our employers and coworkers.
If we are not the practice owner, our professional lives lie in the hands of others. They create our schedule, determine what supplies and medications we have available and decide whether abusive clients are allowed to see us and talk to us. Our licenses lie in their hands, and sometimes those hands aren’t very careful.

4. We are at the mercy of the rules.
We have to sit and grind our teeth while completely unqualified people give advice to our clients. We can’t give advice online unless we have a valid relationship with the patient and client. We are the only ones restricted in this way and punished if we step over the line. It’s fair game for everyone else.

5. We are at the mercy of tradition.
“The customer is always right” is a fallacy. I’m a big believer in using empathy and being calm in the face of an irate or grieving client who has a valid reason for being upset. Good communication can often defuse these situations and bring the client around. Good communication can help avoid losing a client or getting wrapped up in a law suit or board complaint. However, there is a big problem in our field with clients being allowed to abuse us. I don’t believe in engaging in a screaming match with a client, but I believe strongly in refusing to allow a client to scream and curse at anyone on the team. Hanging up the phone after a polite warning is given is absolutely an acceptable response to a verbally abusive client. No one has the right to abuse anyone on your team in any way. Requiring that your employees tolerate abusive behavior could lead to serious consequences.

6. We are at the mercy of our brains and bodies.
Everyone gets sick. Everyone has “off” days. If our brains or bodies betray us when we have a full schedule, there is little sympathy to be found. We have to stop thinking that we are so necessary that we can’t be sick or injured. It breaks my heart to see human beings who need rest and care pushing to continue working because they don’t feel they have a choice. We shouldn’t have to land ourselves in the hospital before it’s ok to call in sick.

7. We are at the mercy of economics.
There are pets we know we can fix, but their owners can’t afford care. If we provide free care to every pet that needs it, then our businesses will go bankrupt and we won’t be able to help anyone. Pets still get sick when there is a recession. Pets still get sick when their owner loses their job. We feel responsible for the health and safety of every pet, and when our hands are tied, it’s devastating.

8. We are at the mercy of ourselves.
No one is harder on a veterinarian than the person they see in the mirror. We want to be perfect. We’re expected to be perfect. We can NEVER be perfect.

Feeling helpless is a terrible thing. It’s frightening and depressing. As a profession, we need to start taking steps to reduce feelings of helplessness. Talk about it at your staff meetings. Make a list of all the ways you feel helpless in your life. Then set about finding ways to reduce or eliminate those situations. The problem won’t go away if we ignore it.  Look at the ways you can set boundaries. Take care of yourself. Be sick when you’re sick. Be human. The only person you can control is YOU. Once you accept that simple fact AND realize how powerful you are, your feelings of helplessness will fade away.