Are community veterinary medicine programs meeting the needs of underserved pets and their families? The ASPCA’s Veronica Accornero, Ph.D., digs into recent research conducted at Asheville Humane Society that addresses this question.
An increasing number of animal welfare organizations, including agencies like yours, are adding community medicine programs to their list of services to address unmet needs for veterinary care in the community. These programs seek to overcome barriers to veterinary care for underserved pets and their families. Most provide free or low-cost wellness and/or medical care in some form—some through stationary clinics, some through mobile clinics that also address transportation challenges by bringing care directly to the community. Often, success of these programs is measured by how many pets and clients we can serve, but we shouldn’t define success by program reach alone.
How do you know if your community medicine program is providing quality services and having an impact? One way is to ask your clients.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®) recently partnered with Colorado State University’s Lori Kogan and Emily Gelb, then with Asheville Humane Society (AHS) and now with the ASPCA, to conduct a study to assess the quality and impact of veterinary medicine programs, with a focus on the perception and experience of the client. We were particularly interested in the perceived quality of veterinarian-client communication, because we know it is so important for building trust with providers and for facilitating positive outcomes for pets. A short survey was administered either online or by phone to pet parents who had previously received services through one of two AHS community veterinary medicine programs: the stationary Affordable Pet Care Clinic that provided low-cost wellness and sick care, and the Mobile Veterinary Clinic, which provided free wellness and sick care to targeted underserved neighborhoods on a rotating schedule. Clients were asked about their interactions and communication with the veterinary team at their last visit, about any barriers to accessing care, and how important the services they received through AHS were in helping them keep their pet. You can access the published paper here.
Of the nearly 100 clients who responded, most were white, non-Hispanic dog owners with an annual income of less than $20,000. About half indicated they had no previous veterinary care for their pets, and reported financial, transportation, and uncertainty about clinic hours as top barriers to accessing care. The perceived client experience with AHS community veterinary programs, including aspects of communication, empathy and cultural sensitivity, was very positive. A full 97% reported feeling respected and cared for by staff, and the great majority rated the quality of the interaction and communication with the veterinary team as ‘Good’ (see chart below). About 87% reported the services they received were very important in helping them keep their pets.
We think these results are important for several reasons. The study provides evidence that community veterinary medicine programs meet an important need in communities. Many clients had no previous veterinary care for their pet, and most report that the services received helped them keep their pets. Results also show that the quality of care received through community veterinary medicine programs, including the quality of veterinarian-client interaction and communication, is highly rated by clients. We know that good veterinarian-client communication is key, as it has been linked to increased compliance with treatment recommendations and better clinical outcomes—and it may be particularly important in community-based veterinary medicine programs. As the first veterinary care for many, it is essential that programs ensure a positive experience for the client to increase the likelihood they will seek care for their pet in the future, whether they are repeat clients with our programs, or with another community medicine or private provider.
So, what can you do to support a positive client experience in your programs?
1. Invest in the training of your staff in effective communication and cultural competence.
Asheville Humane Society did, and we think that is one big reason we found such highly positive ratings on client experience. Many veterinarians and technicians never receive any education or training in these important aspects of care, particularly in the context of underserved communities, which may present unique communication challenges due to cultural/language and other barriers to care. In this recent article, the authors discuss the importance of, and strategies for, effective communication as part of a spectrum-of-care approach in supporting access to veterinary care.
2. Consider and measure client perception as an indicator of program quality and success.
A short questionnaire that asks clients about aspects of their visit experience, staff interactions and communication with staff, and the care received (such as the one by Coe et al., 2010, as adapted for our study) can help programs identify areas of strength and improvement. Along with other outcome measures (e.g., number of target clients/patients served, pet health outcomes, pet quality of life, and community impact), assessment of client perspective can also help provide organizations with a more complete understanding of whether their community veterinary medicine programs are achieving their desired impact.
Beyond simply offering community veterinary programs, remember that you can increase access to care for your patients by cultivating a positive experience for your clients.
* Note: This article was based on of the following publication: Kogan LR, Accornero VH, Gelb E and Slater MR (2021) Community Veterinary Medicine Programs: Pet Owners’ Perceptions and Experiences. Front. Vet. Sci. 8:678595. doi: 10.3389/fvets.2021.678595, which can be accessed here.
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