What is the Greatest Lesson You Learned from a Professional Mistake?

Veterinary Team Brief

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Tracy Dowdy, CVPM

Owner/Managing Partner
New Hope Animal Hospital
Rogers, Arkansas, & Bodhi Animal Hospital 
San Diego, California

Tracy Dowdy, CVPM Owner/Managing Partner New Hope Animal Hospital Rogers, Arkansas, & Bodhi Animal Hospital San Diego, California

Most people really want to be liked. Not just because it feels good—being liked is a key factor in both professional and personal success. Recently, I took a leap in my career and purchased 2 veterinary hospitals that employ more than 75 people. I have learned that being the head honcho is not only stressful and challenging but also lonely. As a female, nonveterinarian practice owner, I feel like I live under a microscope as my team and clients scrutinize my every decision, action, and word.

I made the mistake of sacrificing success for being liked. In lieu of making rapid, tough, and, at times, risky decisions that were in the best interest of the business, I backed down and went with safe or popular decisions. As a result, I didn’t like myself and lost confidence in my ability to make good decisions.

The lesson I have learned is that my desire to be liked by everyone will hold me back. Leaders who want to change things can’t please everyone; if we please everyone, we do not make progress. I hope to lead as Abraham Lincoln did, in that when I lay down the reins of this administration, I want to have one friend left, and that is the friend within me.

 

Mark Crootof, DVM

Owner
Crootof Veterinary Consulting
San Diego, California

Mark Crootof, DVM Owner Crootof Veterinary Consulting San Diego, California

It’s Sunday afternoon: I’m watching sports, and the phone rings. The caller is not a regular client, but his dog is not doing well and it’s an emergency. I tell him to meet me at the practice. He arrives late, in a car with no muffler, with 5 dirty, badly behaved kids. The dog is severely overweight and full of maggots. The guy seems nice but is disoriented and poorly dressed.

I’m thinking that I’m probably going to spend the rest of the day treating the poor animal, miss my sports, and then get stiffed for the bill. But, I remind myself, I went into veterinary medicine to help animals.

Several hours later, after treating the dog for myiasis (maggot infestation), I hand the client a dramatically reduced bill. He whips out a huge amount of cash, pays me with large bills, and adds a huge tip. “Hey, doc,” he says, “I think you undercharged me. I’m sorry to take you away from your kids on your day off, so take them out and buy them some ice cream.”

Like so many practicing veterinarians, I had a strong tendency to judge clients by their presentation—their clothing, their cars, their grammar—but I learned my lesson that day. Not only did I never again judge a client by his or her appearance, but I also carried the lesson over into my personal life.

Aubrey J. Lavizzo, DVM

Practice Owner
The Center for Animal Wellness
Denver, Colorado

Aubrey J. Lavizzo, DVM Practice Owner The Center for Animal Wellness Denver, Colorado

Every lesson I have learned, from every mistake I have made—and regretfully, they are countless—has been important, and I am not able to qualify any as to comparative importance. Lessons learned decades ago, or just a few days ago, all remind me of the level of self-vigilance or feedback that is key to my sense of personal integrity.

Most vivid is the Scottish terrier presented to me by a client who told me that his dog had not been eating or “feeling himself” for a couple of days. My somewhat cursory examination suggested that he was perfectly fine. No radiographs were needed, so I sent him on his way with no instructions or follow-up plan. However, when presented to another veterinarian a day later, the patient was diagnosed with an intestinal obstruction—he had swallowed a corncob! Missing that diagnosis taught me 3 lessons:

  • A thorough examination is always warranted, even when the problem is easily identifiable.
  • Always follow up, whether via a visit or phone call, especially if you cannot provide a clear answer or resolve the client’s concern.
  • Listen with active intention to every client; they always know more about their pets than we do.
Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (Feline)

Practitioner & Owner
Bytown Cat Hospital
Ottawa, Canada

Susan Little, DVM, DABVP (Feline) Practitioner & Owner Bytown Cat Hospital Ottawa, Canada

It is inevitable that we will make mistakes as veterinarians. Hopefully, they will be minor ones, but big or small, there is always a lesson to be learned. In my 25 years as a feline veterinarian, the most important lesson I have learned is to trust my instincts and listen to the patient. It is easy to become reliant on laboratory data and technology, but the most important information comes from a careful physical examination and a good medical history. If what you see in your patient or learn from the medical history does not seem compatible with your laboratory data, go back to the drawing board and reconsider!

 

Melanie Hunt, DVM

Medical Director
Red Bank Veterinary Hospital
Tinton Falls, New Jersey

Melanie Hunt, DVM Medical Director Red Bank Veterinary Hospital Tinton Falls, New Jersey

Most of the errors I’ve witnessed have been due to communication gaps. We all cringe when we think about stories of radiographing the “right” leg or using the pet’s “regular” insulin. You can easily see how those words can lead to errors. If I’m unsure whether the client and I are talking about the same limb, I have, on occasion, used a description picked up from a creative client describing his pet’s forelimb as “the driver’s side front leg.” I had a quick chuckle, but I knew exactly which limb he was talking about.

Raegan J. Wells, DVM, MS, DACVECC

Assistant Professor 
Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Colorado State University

Raegan J. Wells, DVM, MS, DACVECC Assistant Professor Veterinary Teaching Hospital Colorado State University

I think the most important lesson for me has been the realization of how far a professional mistake, and my actions surrounding that mistake, can reach. While it is natural to immediately go into patient, client, and self-preservation mode when a mistake is made, we absolutely cannot overlook the ripple effect that our actions have on our employers, colleagues, and profession. It can be extremely beneficial to arrange private debriefing sessions for all staff members involved or affected by the mistake. Before I do anything else, I take a moment to carefully consider the effect that my action(s) may have on these people and their organizations.

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