According to a recent survey, the frequency of ethically challenging situations encountered by those working in the veterinary industry has increased from several times per month to several times per week.

The online, mixed-method survey involving 540 veterinary team members from 22 countries found that during the COVID-19 pandemic the most common (64.4%) ethically challenging situation was making a decision on how to proceed when clients have limited finances.

This is believed to be the first survey to assess how a global pandemic, such as COVID-19, can affect the frequency and types of ethically challenging situations faced by veterinary teams.

Study co-author Dr. Anne Quain, a veterinary practitioner and companion animal researcher from the University of Sydney, explains, “Our research confirmed that the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic presented new ethical challenges for veterinary team members. This was incredibly stressful for veterinary teams.”

Amongst the most frequently encountered challenging situations were a conflict between personal wellbeing and professional role (64.3%), and a conflict between the interests of clients, and the interests of their animals (59.6%).

Alongside this, there are challenging decisions about what counts as an essential veterinary service (48.1%); conflict between the wellbeing of family/household members and professional role (46.3%); and challenging decisions about whether to perform non-contact veterinary visits (46.3%).

Off the back of this research, the authors were able to identify several resources and strategies that may assist veterinary team members to better navigate these ethical challenges.

Managing key stressors

Dr. Quain says, “At the time [the study was conducted], social distancing, routine mask-wearing and non-contact consults were unprecedented. But as new outbreaks of COVID-19 plunge us into subsequent lockdowns, we’ve learned some lessons that will help reduce that stress.

“For example, one of the big stressors that we found was the conflict between one’s professional role and associated duties and obligations, and one’s personal wellbeing or safety. However, we know that there are steps we can take to minimise human-to-human transmission of the disease, and we can put those protocols into place.

“We can also communicate very clearly with clients. Respondents to our survey found that communication was complicated by mask-wearing, and the inability to show things to the client in the consult room (for example, a site on an animal’s body that needs treating).

“We can manage client expectations by talking them through what we will require over the phone. For example: reiterating that they will be required to check in, ensuring only the minimum number of people necessary accompany the animal, stating that consults will be no contact, so it can help to jot down a list of their concerns/requirements ahead of time, and warning them in advance of extended waiting times if that is applicable.

“Also, we can augment communication by providing written instructions, or even using video to demonstrate aspects of the physical exam to clients who are not in the clinic. We need to accept that non-contact consultations require more effort when it comes to communication to ensure that we understand the concerns of our clients, and they understand our findings and our plans, while keeping everyone safe.”

Essentially, this study sheds light on the impact the pandemic has had on the veterinary profession. It identifies an increase in the frequency of challenging situations and stressful events. Even simply being aware of these facts may, in some way, help veterinary team members to better navigate these tests in their daily work. It may also assist people to recognise the stress they are under and encourage them to incorporate self-care practices into their daily lives.

The research was published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

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Liz has a passion for all things cat and dog, and was one of the first in Australia to bring Pet Insurance to the market. She has headed up Petsecure for the past 12 years, and is committed to promoting and supporting the amazing work done by rescue groups around Australia, and those who work to promote a better life for all animals.

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