Challenges in Application of Cultural Competency to Practice

Our first ever clinic staff retreat. Virgin territory. A daring investment of time, money, emotional energy – which can be in short supply in a fledgling business. Between the storm-waylaid practice consultant and professional retreat facilitator and that mid-workshop discussion dermatologic “emergency”, we juggled everything that came our way and gelled as a cohesive, motivated, culture-oriented team. Or so I thought…

The next day, my trusty sidekick vet assistant, who fulfills her client education role with startling affinity given her recent addition to the practice, was grumbling after being elbowed out of the exam room by a colleague with some offhand comment about the patient being feline.

Uh oh. The intrepid team member had perhaps taken a light-hearted comment about the “farm cat perspective” a bit too literally during the previous day’s discussions and was now taking her responsibility as the clinic’s feline friendly coordinator to extreme measures by personally overseeing each and every cat appointment. Wowzers.

As we discussed what really happened in that ill-fortuned conversation and its unintended consequences – the perception versus reality – as well as how to mitigate the perception and restore the team’s cooperativeness, I was silently patting myself on the back for handling the germinating HR issue with such aplomb. And then… “Well, don’t be surprised if Holly gives me the cold shoulder when she starts next week. I think I offended her with something I said and she thinks I’m a racist.”

Dog people versus cat people. Perceived – and sometimes real – different expectations in pet care in farm people versus city people. Race. Ethnicity. Age. Gender. Socioeconomic status. Language. It baffles me sometimes that the clientele, and veterinary support staff, and even my veterinarian colleagues, are as diverse as the patient population in my mixed animal practice. Yet sometimes in the practice of veterinary medicine, I fail to appreciate that. I get tunnel vision in the execution of animal healthcare and forget that the people I serve are as individual and unique as my patients. They each have their own needs and expectations.

It also shocked me that the interpretation could have been construed in such a negative fashion between my team members. They work with each other nearly every day. They have a general understanding of each other’s personality, demeanor, and values. An added bonus is that in my practice, they all genuinely like each other (a true blessing of which of I am acutely aware). And yet, despite this predisposition of being viewed agreeably, these faux pas occurred that left others feeling offended, misunderstood, demeaned, and ridiculed.

If this can happen between my team members, what real and/or perceived missteps do we have with our clients? The general public?

A deflating note was that this occurred two weeks following our weekly clinic staff meeting in which I revealed our AVMA Future Leaders pilot presentation on cultural competency. As a clinic, we’re still obviously learning the ropes of this whole cultural competence gig – but any clinic cultural change is going to take time. The best things aren’t created overnight. And as we, the 2012-2013 AVMA Future Leaders, are piloting this program, we’re are also strategizing, revising, and tweaking how to make the AVMA’s cultural competency resources more applicable to the real world challenges faced in veterinary medicine. Challenges like communication of patient care, client compliance, perception of veterinary service value, practice engagement within the local community, staff job satisfaction and turnover, and financial sustainability. Adding cultural competency to your medicine bag can not only help you with clients, but also your staff, peers, and community at large. Despite my practice’s earlier examples, we’re working through these issues as we learn more about cultural competency and how to apply it within our practice.  Our theme for this initiative is “Clients as unique as their animals”. I’m finding that cultural competency makes my role as a veterinarian easier and rewarding. And that’s a panacea I’d prescribe any day.

Comments are closed.