Continuity of care can feel like a trendy buzzword. It’s one of those phrases that gets tossed around in both the VetMed and human medical worlds, and a casual Google search will net you dozens of definitions. They’ll generally focus around the need for an ongoing relationship between patient and caregiver and leave it at that.
Continuity of care is the gold standard for medicine, and more and more pet owners are demanding this level of focused treatment. They want access to care that extends beyond their yearly wellness checks and a team that’s there for them during 2 a.m. emergencies. Here’s the key tension: meeting that client demand requires a concerted effort across your entire clinic, and most veterinary hospitals aren’t prepared to provide the necessary support.
The goal of this article is to lay out the major elements of the relationship between your practice and your patients and see how you can use each interaction to build out a meaningful, long term connection.
What is Continuity of Care?
There’s only so much that we can do at the point of care. When we perform a surgery, we’re addressing an immediate need, but the healing process is full of both pitfalls and opportunities related to the patient’s health. Continuity of care means a consistent relationship between the pet, the owner, and the clinic throughout the life of the animal.
I think of continuity of care in terms of five pillars:
- Consistent communication
- Excellent customer service
- Owner compliance
- Access to medical advice
- Follow through
Here’s what these pillars look like in practice (and how to implement them).
1. Consistent Communication
From new client intake to end of life care, it’s vital that we’re able to communicate with our clients consistently and effectively. That starts with an excellent staff that’s able to provide great service to both patients and clients. When hiring, we need to prioritize both a person’s skill set and their emotional intelligence.
For a lot of clinics, automating elements of this process is a key way to build it into their operations. You can use tools for automated appointment reminders, create paper handouts with your recommendations for day-to-day concerns, and use a chat tool to cut back the amount of time that actually needs to be spent on the phone.
Of course, all of this falls apart if your clinic is hard to reach. Long hold times, missed calls, and limited channels for communication all turn this into a hassle for both your hospital and your clients. Clinics that struggle with communication will struggle with providing the kind of consistency that’s key to continuity of care. Look for opportunities to cut back the number of calls that your staff needs to deal with day-to-day.
2. Excellent customer service
It might not be instantly apparent how customer service ties into continuity of care. Fundamentally, though, it’s about the ways that we approach the emotional side of practicing medicine.
When we help clients to feel heard, understood, and cared for, we’re establishing the kind of relationship they can lean on. When we have the forethought to anticipate a pet owner’s needs, we’re making it easier to seek care. We’re also opening space for the smaller questions and concerns that are a huge part of the journey of owning a pet.
This starts with hiring and continues with training over time. It helps to have a clear sense of how you want clients to feel when they enter your clinic, and build that emotional experience into the ways that you navigate calls and follow ups. In my clinic, I like to follow up after every visit to make sure the pet did not have any complications (yes, even with vaccine appointments), making sure preventives were given and that the pet ingested them without a fuss. It is a lot of communication and it does take a substantial team effort, but we can easily alter therapies and even lend emotional support to owners after traumatic experiences. It lets them know we are here and that we care.
Essentially, strong relationships are the foundation of continuity of care. It’s about building a meaningful level of trust between the client and the clinic, which is vital when it comes to discussions of care.
3. Owner Compliance
Continuity of care is rooted in the ability of caregivers to work alongside owners. That means following up to make sure that the medical therapy provided is having a favorable response, and making alterations if it isn’t. It also means working to bring owners onboard with clinical recommendations, even when they’re not initially convinced.
How do we ensure owner compliance? Education is always the starting point. We need to communicate clearly, and provide resources wherever possible. If our hard work and recommendations are ignored the moment a patient gets home, then the care provided will be incomplete.
If I’m struggling to get aligned with a pet owner, I tend to use analogies that the owner can easily understand. I discuss the disease process in a way that makes sense to them and then discuss care options. I let them know what is available and that they have choices. I do not know their financial health, so remembering that if an owner cannot afford therapy, it’s ok I support them emotionally and we try alternatives so they can afford therapy and the pet receives care.
4. Accessibility of Care
Can a pet owner reach your practice in their time of need? Pet health doesn’t follow a 9-5 schedule, and owners are hesitant when they can’t tell if they need to make an expensive trip to the ER. That can result in visits to Dr. Google, unnecessary trips to the ER, or putting off necessary treatment due to uncertainty. I’m not recommending that you spend your entire life on-call, though.
Instead, look for a partner that can provide support to your clients when you’re not there. Whether or not you personally see late night emergencies, providing a support system after hours for your clients means that they have the information they need to make an informed decision about their pet.
It’s about maintaining the care for the pet within the walls of your hospital, even when you’re not around. If you’re not able to provide this support and your clients have other options, they’re likely to go with the clinic that can support them in their scariest moments. The opposite is true as well, though- I’ve had many clients specifically reach out to thank me for the support they received after hours, which drives long-term loyalty to my clinic.
5. Follow through
This is the culmination of your efforts when it comes to continuity of care. Here’s what I mean by follow through:
- Ensuring that recommendations are being followed
- Ensuring that medical therapy is favorable
- Answering questions about therapy
- Scheduling follow up exams
These steps are inherently time-consuming. For clinics that are already feeling overwhelmed, it can be hard to plan for this additional level of support.
There are two things to keep in mind here. First, if you’ve built up strong processes for the other four pillars, following through is a natural outgrowth of those structures. Second, if you’re taking steps to automate certain processes and using virtual tools to streamline others, following through doesn’t need to be a hassle.
Simple follow up exams can be conducted via video call, rather than taking up an exam room. Basic email sequences can communicate reminders post-surgery. In my clinic, I like to send text reminders. It can be automated and the responses are downloaded into the medical record.
One last thing to remember: help is available. The biggest thing holding clinics back from providing true continuity of care is the misapprehension that they need to do everything alone. GuardianVets is the leading partner for clinics that believe a better standard of care is possible. If you’re ready to streamline your operations and drive a new level of connection with your clients, you can sign up for a consultation below.