The Veterinarian and the Unpredictable Outcome
Dealing With Clinical Uncertainty as a Veterinarian
As a veterinarian, you come across cloudy, uncertain situations all the time: a set of symptoms that has multiple possible diagnoses, clients who do not follow recommendations, managers who make rash decisions, and when you simply do not know the best way forward.
This sense of uncertainty rings especially true in the current climate. You might be anxious about the spread of Covid-19 in your practice, how your working practice may have to change in the name of safety, and whether clients will remain loyal after the lockdown period. This is only amplified by a competing sense of certainty in the form of ‘on-demand’ culture: we can access specific information and media instantly.
Research has shown that a sense of uncertainty and lack of control makes people more likely to believe in conspiracies. When a situation is uncertain, or we struggle with joining the dots, we literally create our own narrative – the conspiracy for example – that no matter how ludicrous, brings a sense of certainty and causation.
As keen problem solvers, it is particularly stressful for vets who are left dangling in uncertain situations. Therefore, the question remains: how can you deal with uncertainty as a veterinarian?
Understand what you can control
Work on the things you can control, instead of obsessing over the things you can’t. Instead of worrying endlessly about a life-saving operation that could go horribly wrong, focus on managing the client’s expectations and ensuring you have taken all steps to maximise success. Instead of becoming anxious over a blood test result that may not be on time, keep in contact with the client and set their expectations realistically from the start.
As a vet, it can often feel as if you are working in an ‘exam room vacuum’, which can cause you to internalise worries, even if these are out of your control. It is therefore important to maintain clear communication, with both your clients and your peers, instead of flailing in the gulf of uncertainty.
Veterinarians who feel like they must control everything (an impossibility) often end up overloading themselves and burning out. The solution to this is learning to let go of the things you absolutely cannot control and learning how to delegate some of the other things you can. This will require relinquishing some sense of control, but will have a positive impact on your and your team. For example, you could (properly) train up your veterinary nurses to administer certain medications, take x-rays and a multitude of other things you currently horde . In this way, you are saving time for the tasks you really need control over, and your nurse is learning new skills and, quite probably, deriving a greater sense of satisfaction from their work.
Experiencing variety is a core human need, so relish the variety that you encounter as a veterinarian. If you get the chance to learn a new skill, take it! Don’t cower in the face of potential failure. Or treat it as the end of the line. Instead, learn that failure is an important step in the learning process. A step on the road to mastery.
The tendency to feel like an imposter can plague new veterinarians in particular, and cause stagnancy instead of progression, because anything outside of the comfort zone is uncertain. Just know that to some extent, everyone feels like an imposter or has felt like one before, because it is a natural part of growth.
By embracing variety, you will be supporting innovation and creativity. In her recent blog post on defensive medicine, Dr Sarah Keir states that the fear of trying something new, perpetuated by the image of the RCVS and being ‘struck off’, puts us at potentially dangerous risk of not progressing veterinary medicine and of never challenging the ‘old ways.’ As veterinarians, if we want to make a remarkable impact on the lives of animals, we must embrace the new.
Alter your narrative
We all have an internal narrative in order to make sense of the multifaceted, nuanced and frankly bizarre happenings in the world – a conspiracy being an extreme version. Horoscopes and the mystical services market are worth £1.7b globally! But the narrative of your veterinary career can be changed. For example, if you feel like new work practices in the age of Covid-19 – such as wearing protective equipment and limited appointments – are impinging on your sense of control and certainty, attempt to re-frame the situation.
Instead, you could say that these new implementations are sources of freedom and control. They are making it safer to interact with clients, and allow clients into practice in the first place. Although it is often easy to focus on the negatives, reframing the situation can make it feel more positive and give yourself more control over it.
They are also likely to be a temporary solution and the moment of hardship will pass.
Storytelling is hardwired into our brains to make it easier for us to make sense of the world. This retrospective piecing together of a situation is called ‘choice-supportive bias.’ Try to recognise when you are considering events after the fact, and really scrutinise whether the story you are telling yourself is having a positive impact.
Cut back on the news
The news never stops. It is a constant 24/7/365 mill of – overwhelmingly – negative information. Although many of us encounter the news whilst passively scrolling, it has more impact than you may imagine.
Research has shown that negative news coverage, no matter the subject, can cause readers to catastrophize their own personal worries. This is when we allow our stories to spiral out of control, and imagine the worst possible outcome in a situation.
The news presents us with a picture of a very uncertain and volatile world, and without knowing it we can project such feelings onto our own lives. I would therefore encourage you to put things into perspective. Life is somewhat uncertain and you have no direct control over natural disasters occurring on the other side of the world. But take control of the things that you can, such as looking after animals to the best of your ability.
Instead, take a look at our weekly news roundup. We have collated the news that is relevant to you, and put it all in one place.
Build resilience so you are ready to embrace variety and accept change. Simple changes to your lifestyle can have a huge effect on your resilience. Things like meditation, sleeping for at least seven hours per night, keeping yourself hydrated and eating healthily. And understand that one of the great gifts you are currently receiving as you live through the global pandemic, is the exposure to hardship. Simply living through this is building your resilience far more than you probably appreciate.
We hope you found this blog post useful and that you can begin to embrace uncertainty in your life. For more of this, in much more detail, you should check out Dr Dave Nicol’s bestselling book for new veterinary graduates, So You’re a Vet…Now What? It’s now available for digital download – so you know what to do! Click the link for instant access today.