June 01, 2006


 When caring too much is an occupational hazard

Posted May 15, 2006

Compassion fatigue is responsible for the loss of some of the most brilliant, caring people in the veterinary profession, according to Dr. Greg Ogilvie, a veterinary oncology expert.

No member of the veterinary health team is immune, and steps must be taken to guard against this potentially career and life ruining phenomenon, said Dr. Ogilvie, speaking at the American Animal Hospital Association's annual conference in Long Beach, Calif., this March.

Compassion fatigue was recognized by health care professionals within recent years. It is the stress associated with caring for people—and pets—during traumatic times.

The cost of compassion is especially high for full-time caregivers, such as physicians, nurses, and social workers. People need to realize that compassion fatigue can be emotionally devastating. Dr. Ogilvie recounted how two of his veterinary colleagues left clinical practice because they could no longer bear watching their clients and patients suffer.

"They're no longer doing what their heart led them to do," he commented.

Veterinary professionals deal with difficult, highly emotional situations daily. They must inform a client strongly bonded to his terminally ill cat that euthanasia is the humane option. A litter of puppies is wiped out by parvovirus. An owner cannot afford a lifesaving treatment.

Veterinary professionals are especially susceptible to compassion fatigue. They tend to be highly caring people, and many see their job as a calling rather than a career, Dr. Ogilvie said. As students, veterinarians and veterinary technicians receive little if any training in coping with job-related difficulties, he added.

Veterinarians and nurses experience death five times more often than human physicians, Dr. Ogilvie noted.

As director of the California Veterinary Specialists Angel Care Cancer Center, Dr. Ogilvie is all too familiar with the toll a cancer diagnosis can have on those trying to save the pet.

Cancer, he explained, is unlike other diseases because of its fear factor. Many people know someone with cancer. Moreover, the disease is the No. 1 cause of death in cats and dogs in the United States and Europe and is a leading killer of people. So when cancer is diagnosed in a pet, the owner and veterinary team may well see it as a death sentence.

Compassion fatigue is difficult to recognize and often mistaken for burnout, according to Dr. Ogilvie. Signs of fatigue include forgetfulness, losing things, exhaustion, frequent illness, anger, irritability, isolation, lack of appetite, apathy, and loss of sleep. One way of identifying compassion fatigue is it is usually precipitated by a critical incident, such as a difficult euthanasia or unsuccessful surgery.

There are preventive measures for guarding against compassion fatigue. Dr. Ogilvie recommends debriefing staff immediately after an especially difficult event. It allows staff a chance to discuss their feelings while drawing strength from others.

He also suggested taking regular breaks, humor, talking regularly with a colleague who understands practice-related stresses, exercising, and eating right. "Veterinary professionals," Dr. Ogilvie added, "must allow for times of refreshing and healing."