Dr. Kristen Dewey and vet tech
Black and White headshot of IndeVets Employee kristen
Words by:
Kristen Dewey, DVM — Associate IndeVet

Effective communication with team members and clients is essential for any veterinarian, but it is especially important (and often more challenging) as a relief vet. Good communication not only makes the day go smoother, but it is also crucial for providing the best possible patient outcomes. Below, I’ll highlight some of the unique communication challenges we face as relief vets and how best to overcome them.



Walking in to work at a practice where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating but gets easier with time and experience. Before stepping into a practice for the first time, you can help improve your communication by doing some research. Looking at a practice’s website and social media site(s) can be an excellent way to get a better feel for thetype of practice, as well as give you a head start on learning who people are, what the office hours are, and what services are available, among other things.

Upon arrival

The first hurdle upon entering a practice is introducing yourself and then trying to remember the names of everyone you are introduced to during your hospital walk-through. Writing down the names of the team members that you will be working with that day can be helpful, especially in large practices. Sometimes, you have to ask directly, “Who will I be working with most closely today?”

Understand appointment flow

Appointment flow differs significantly across practices, and communication is a large part of that. Understanding appointment flow is critical to providing the best possible experience for the client and patient, and you need to communicate with your team to ensure you understand everyone’s role. It’s essential to know who will put the client and patient into the room, what will be done before you go in, how you will be notified that the appointment is ready, and what happens when it is over. Often, this information is given to you, but feel free to ask for a complete walk-through of an appointment if not.

Find out the role of veterinary assistants and technicians

The role of veterinary assistants and technicians within a practice is also highly variable, especially between states.

Vet techs looking at medicineIt is important to know the state definitions for an assistant and technician and what duties they can perform within the practice act. The skill level of each individual is another area of variation. It is important to acknowledge that a veterinary assistant is just as skilled or knowledgeable as an RVT. There is a fine line between assuming a less experienced team member can do something when they cannot and offending a more experienced team member by asking if they can do something they feel capable of. Asking general questions before appointments can help prevent miscommunication, errors, and hurt feelings down the road. Knowing who obtains samples (fecal, ear cytology, blood, urine, etc.) and who interprets them will help you understand everyone’s role in the practice.

Running late?

Running late is a scenario we all try to avoid, but it sometimes happens despite our best intentions. In these situations, I communicate with the CSRs to let them know we are behind. This way, they know to wait to fill an open appointment until we are caught up, and they can also set expectations appropriately for clients when they come in. Good communication with clients about delays and emergencies significantly decreases negative interactions. I also find that entering a room and thanking a client for their patience is much better received than walking in and apologizing for being late.

Throughout the day

Determine experience levels

Suppose you are unsure about a staff member’s experience level in a particular situation. In that case, asking and trying Veterinary assistant and technicianto do so non-offensively is important. “You can read fecals, right?” sounds very different from “Do you all read those, or do I?” Similarly, “Can you restrain a fractious cat?” is interpreted differently than “It looks like this kitty can be a littlespicy; are you comfortable with that?” I find it helps to ask directly if they feel comfortable in a certain situation (going over medications, giving an injection, discussing a fecal result, holding a fractious pet, etc.) to avoid making erroneous assumptions.

Touch base with the other vets

When working with other veterinarians, it is important to know what is expected of you when things are not explicitly assigned to a doctor. Who sees the drop-off appointments? What about work-in appointments? Do phone calls or follow-ups need to be made? Touching base with the other vets on-site can help ensure things flow smoothly and that you are not taking cases that aren’t yours or neglecting cases that should be.

Communication with clients and staff

As relief vets, we can sometimes see clients who show disappointment or frustration that they are not seeing their “regular” vet. Acknowledging this feeling as valid while promptly addressing why the patient is here today is important Dr. Kristen Dewey and vet techfor increasing client satisfaction and keeping your day moving. “I know Dr. C isn’t here, Mrs. Jones, but I am so glad we could get you in to see me today to address Fluffy’s potential ear infection.” Clients often want to know that you care about them and their pets. Teddy Roosevelt is frequently credited with saying, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” I think that describes veterinary/client interactions perfectly.

Non-verbal communication is an often overlooked area of communication that plays a massive role in how others perceive you. Remember, it is important not just what you say but how you say it. This was stated beautifully by Maya Angelou, who said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Make sure you smile when appropriate, use relaxed body language, and keep your tone of voice suitable for the interaction. Speaking with kindness, compassion, and sincerity to team members and clients helps make them feel comfortable around you. Ensure you are seen as approachable so that staff feels comfortable coming to you with any issues.


Following up on cases is another area that differs between practices and is crucial to understand so that patients get the best possible care after you leave the clinic. I always make sure to ask the practice manager or other team member what needs to happen with pending lab work– do I leave a note or round one of the doctors, or is there a place to put a task in the medical record software? For sick patient call-backs, finding out who to tell or where to put that information into the EMR is critical so patients don’t get lost in follow-up.

In the medical sector, written communication is just as important as verbal and non-verbal communication. It doesn’t matter how excellent, thorough, and in-depth a conversation with a client was if you didn’t document it. Our medical records should include the patient history, exam findings, differential diagnoses, labs performed (and whether they were discussed already or are pending), treatments done (and declined), what was discussed with the client, and what the next steps should be. I find the plan and client communications to be the most salient parts of the record, and making sure these are done thoroughly will ensure everyone is on the same page moving forward.

Show genuine gratitude

At IndeVets, one of the core values that I love most is genuine gratitude. Don’t forget to thank people:

  • Thank clients at the end of each appointment for bringing their pets in.
  • Thank staff members for getting samples.
  • Thank practice managers for helping you with the software.
  • Thank other vets for collaborating on cases.

As relief vets, staff often thank us as we leave the practice at the end of the shift. In return, we must thank everyone for having us and helping us throughout the day.


In summary

Remember that what is ordinary or commonplace for one practice may not be so for another. As relief vets, we see how things are done across practices, but this may be the only place staff members have ever worked. As such, we need to ask questions and not make assumptions. We must learn about the appointment flow and “who does what” at the practice. We need to clearly document our communication in the record to make things easier for everyone who sees that patient next. We should ensure we are aware of not just the things we say but how we say them. Showing kindness, compassion, and gratitude to everyone we encounter will help ensure we make a good impression and are welcomed back to the clinic with open arms.