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Veterinary Culture Change, One Word at a Time

I’ve worked in this field for 23 years, the last 15 as a practicing veterinarian. In that time, I’ve heard some of the people I love and respect the most say some of the worst things.

If I’m being 100% honest, I’ve said some of those things.

We want change. We crave change. As individuals and as a profession. And if we’re going to make that happen, deep, meaningful, lasting change, then we have to change the way we think.

To change the way we think, we must change the words we speak. If we look to linguistics, we’ll learn that language is deeply embedded in our neural pathways and plays a role far more subtle than we may imagine in our thoughts and actions.

This article isn’t about deep, problematic entrenched language. That's a conversation for another day.

This article is about low-hanging fruit. Phrases and terms that no veterinarian should ever say. And yet, we do. On the daily.

“Baby Doctor”

Y’all. Come on. This may be the worst of the worst. And I’ve even heard new grads say it about themselves!

Listen. New graduates bring new knowledge, new enthusiasm and new life to a practice. And, yeh. They’re new. They need training, mentorship, and support.

They do not need to be reminded of this by being called a “Baby Doctor”. Whether this is being said by a frustrated senior vet or long-time technical staff member hoping to maintain their status in the hierarchy, this phrase serves no one. Let it go!

“Old School”

As in, “I may be old school, but I still use Ket-Val.” or “I’m old school, but I am not giving participation trophies to these millennial Baby Doctors!” (see what I did there?) Listen, I have wrinkles and a few gray hairs. I get it. Calling yourself old school is often uttered in defense of a tried-and-true method that is falling out of favor. But please, don’t diminish your clinical wisdom and years of experience by calling yourself old school.

Own your expertise and drop the “I’m old school” qualifier! Also, take a minute to evaluate where you may need to grow. In some cases, saying “I’m old school” may be a red flag that it actually IS time to let go of an old, unhelpful habit.

“Shit Rolls Down Hill”

I can’t believe I have to put this one on the list. But, I’ve heard it. And more than a few times.

This one is usually uttered by a frustrated manager or team leader at the end of their rope. They don’t really mean it. They’re just done. Over it. Swimming in their own sea of burnout and feeling no support. But, please, don’t say it. Don’t even think it.

Maybe shit rolls down hill, but often it just sticks where it lands. Why not clean up the shit (and attitudes) together!

“I can’t”

“I can’t. I just can’t.”

We’ve all heard it. We’ve all said it. The exasperated “I can’t” falling from the lips of the most emotionally exhausted among us.

“I just can’t deal with one more angry client.”

“I can’t lose one more night of sleep anticipating surgeries.”

“I can’t possibly be expected to care about the $800 car payment that she’s using as an excuse to not pay this bill!”

“I can’t” feels very true. But it’s disempowering. Muster up the confidence to say “I won’t.”

“I won’t listen to her drone on about her car payment. I’ll give her the bill and if she has questions she can talk to the PM.”

OR, “I choose to do this emergency surgery alone, even though I know it isn’t the ideal scenario.”

Own the choices you’re making, the options you have. Even when they feel like terrible options. “Can’t” is rarely true. When you say “can’t” and mean “won’t” or “choose not to”, you give away your power.

“I won’t”, “I don’t”, “I choose not to” or even "I can, even though it's hard." Those are your phrases.

“Our clients won’t tolerate...”

I hear versions of this on the regular. “I can’t raise my rates. My clients won’t tolerate it.”

Really? You’ll lose 100% of your clients? Hmm.

“We have to improve our wait times. Our clients won’t tolerate this!”

Why not say, instead, “We want to provide better service and shorter wait times."

Yes, some clients don’t tolerate inconvenience. Some clients will leave over price. Some clients will complain on the internet. But, much like the phrase “I can’t”, the phrase "they won't tolerate" eliminates your role in the decision. This way of thinking transfers your power to the clients, which actually doesn't serve them. It's subtle, but when you make decisions about your protocols and policies based on your values and expertise, your clients will see a lighter, brighter, more confident attitude from you and your team. They may not know why, but they’ll appreciate it (even when they don't love the policy).

And last, but not least… We have it worse”

The “we” in this sentence might be owners or associates.

It might be emergency vets or GPs.

It might be academic or private practice.

I’ve heard every single category of veterinarian and veterinary professional engage in this competitive suffering.

It often sounds like this: “They have no idea what we go through every day!”

And while maybe that is true, the opposite is also true. You have no idea what they are going through. And that’s fine!

There are good and bad aspects to all of our careers and life circumstances. Competitive suffering brings everyone down. If you find yourself resenting a colleague in another area of practice (or our peers in human medicine, or practice owners, or relief vets, or whoever), take a minute to practice gratitude for the aspects of your career that do work for you. I’m not asking you to think you have it BETTER than they do. That also isn’t helpful. And I’m not asking you to lie to yourself. Simply appreciate what is working for you that is unique to your area of practice. And if you can’t find something - maybe we should work on that together.

So, as you head into your next shift, make a mental note to choose language that serves your team. And when your brain offers up unhelpful words and phrases, thank it for trying to help. Then dismiss it. Changing your language takes time and repetition, but it can be done.

The words we speak matter. Our teams are listening. Future veterinarians are listening. And, most importantly, our brains are listening. The language you practice is the language your brain believes. Choose those words with wisdom.

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