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Do you know your client?

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I OFTEN feel that when we register new clients at our practice we should ensure that the receptionist, as well as getting basic facts such as name, address and animal details, asks people what they do for a living. A client yesterday exemplified why this is important. She had presented her cat, which had a badly infected bite on its foreleg. Fortunately, although she wasn't wearing a nurse's uniform, an ID card that dangled from the lanyard around her neck proclaimed her to be staff sister for the infection unit at the local hospital. Not only did this ensure that I didn't waste (mine or her's) valuable time describing the basic underlying problem, it also meant I didn't patronise her with simplistic management advice, which she would have regarded as kindergarten-standard in her area of expertise. I also wasn't thrown when she asked intelligent questions about antibiotic choice, dosage and bioavailability.

This idea, that we should have forewarning about our clients' jobs, was reinforced when my partner related a recent experience concerning an elderly gentleman who had presented his bitch, which had developed the classic signs of pyometritis. My partner had looked the client up and down, judged him to be of fairly basic intelligence and given him a simplistic explanation as to his pet's illness.

‘Your little dog has got a nasty infection in her womb, and the bugs will kill her if we don't do something, so I'd like to give her an injection to make her go to sleep before I carefully do an O-P-E-R-A-T-I-O-N to take away all the horrible bits inside,’ she'd said.

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The client had remained silent until she had finished, and then nodded slowly, commenting that he had come across this problem frequently in women during his many years as senior gynaecology consultant at Guy's Hospital in London.

Many of us, I suspect, can identify with my partner's toe-curling embarrassment, and I was able to console her with the tale of when I did a thyroidectomy on someone's cat. Hoping to impress, I displayed the excised glands to the owner when I discharged the animal, and was more than slightly uneasy when he scooped them up, declaring that he would do some histopathology on them at his lab. He was, it turned out, a pathologist by trade and I had a slightly nervous few days before he reappeared for the postoperation check-up with a sheaf of full-colour photos showing the hyperactive thyroids. He was pleased, he informed me, that there was only hypertrophic tissue present and no neoplastic cells; moreover, he could find no evidence of parathyroid tissue in the sections, and complemented me on my surgical skills.

So I've been pondering how one might approach the subject of identifying an owner's area of expertise without appearing too pushy. Do we go for a client questionnaire and slip the key question in among others? Do we silently assess someone and deduce (Sherlock Holmes-like) from their dress, mannerisms and stance what their occupation is? Or do we employ a garrulous receptionist who has a knack for worming a full life story out of someone at the front desk in less than five minutes flat?

There's another reason that I think we really need to know what someone does for a living. Last year, I put someone's aged cat to sleep. The young owner, an incredibly scruffy chap in torn jeans and filthy T-shirt, clearly had next to no money and – as many of us do in these situations – I knocked a bit off the bill. As soon as he left the building, my nurse demanded to know why I had given him a discount. His face or name meant nothing to me, as I'm not a football fan. However, as a mainstay of the English football team, he apparently was not short of a bob or two.

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