Study looks at how veterinarians cope with patient death

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A study has looked at the stated thoughts and reactions of veterinarians who work in shelters and spay-neuter clinics as they cope with serious adverse patient events related to spaying and neutering, be they life-threatening complications or death. While every veterinarian has experienced these scenarios, not all have developed coping skills and strategies that help them deal with them. That's according to a study authored by Dr. Sara White. She is the operator of Spay ASAP Inc., a mobile spay-neuter clinic that collaborates with humane organizations in Vermont and New Hampshire. The study authors questioned 32 shelter veterinarians and others who perform spay-neuter surgeries. Qualitative thematic analysis was used to identify themes and patterns in their responses.

Veterinarians who coped most effectively after a patient’s adverse event were those who could talk openly with colleagues about the event, a study's findings show.

In the aftermath of a patient death or serious complication, veterinarians described feelings of guilt, sadness, anxiety, and self-doubt, and felt deep empathy for their clients, according to the results. "Some never recovered from the trauma of these events, while others were able to transform the incidents into learning experiences and opportunities for growth in their technical and emotional skills. The veterinarians who coped most effectively were those who could talk openly with colleagues about the events, and who were able to learn and improve protocols. Further, successful veterinarians had learned to place the loss into perspective, and had developed expertise in how to handle and support themselves through the event's aftermath," wrote Dr. White, who also concerns herself with the issue of health ergonomics among veterinary surgeons and staff on her website,

According to Jennifer Brandt, PhD, AVMA director of member wellness and diversity initiatives, "This study gives veterinarians a language to think and talk about their responses to complications and patient deaths as well as steps that they can take when they're trying to recover from these events. Helping veterinarians understand that they are not alone in their feelings and reactions to unanticipated events may help decrease the negative impact of these reactions and allow veterinarians to respond and cope more effectively."

The study appears in the February 2018 issue of the journal Anthrozoös and is available online at