Colorado State University Argus Institute’s New Director Focuses on Communicating with Clients About Veterinary Medicine

Colorado State University’s Argus Institute has named a new director, Dr. Jane Shaw, a research pioneer in veterinarian-client communication. As director, she will teach students clinical communication skills, support Veterinary Teaching Hospital client needs, research veterinary communication, seek funding for research and program goals and oversee administration duties.

"It’s very exciting for me to be here at Colorado State University," Shaw said. "The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences has always been on the leading edge of veterinary communication, especially with the establishment of the Argus Institute. The field of communication in veterinary medicine is gaining momentum and becoming sophisticated with rigorous training as veterinary professionals realize the importance of effective communication skills. My goal is for our students to develop a communication skills tool box, so that when they go into private practice, they are ready to handle any situation, whether a routine check-up, giving a difficult diagnosis to a client or helping pet owners through tough end-of-life issues, including euthanasia."  

The Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine, originally known as the Changes Program, was established in 1984 and initially focused on helping clients who experienced the loss of a pet. It has evolved into a unique institute that provides client support and comprehensive communication training that focuses on preparing veterinary students to meet the needs of their clients. In the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Argus clinical counselors work alongside members of the veterinary medical teams to advocate for the client and their animal. The service works with clients who seek treatment for companion animals, horses and livestock. The Argus staff also offers professional resources to area veterinary practices and people in the community.

     Shaw plans to create an integrated communication curriculum providing student instruction through all four years of the veterinary program, beginning with basic skills and building to advanced communication techniques. One educational tool will have veterinary students working with professional simulated clients – or people who have been carefully screened, coached and trained to realistically express the vast range of client interactions that veterinarians experience in practice. Using cases based on real practice situations and interactions with simulated clients creates the opportunity for students to develop communication skills in a safe and supportive environment in preparation for the day they will serve clients in the hospital.

Through Argus, students will be trained to communicate with clients of varying ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and family structures; with different types of human-animal relationships; and with clients who are impacted by emotions such as anger, sadness and frustration. Students also learn to help clients make decisions about financial commitments, difficult diagnostic or treatment options and euthanasia, based on the individual animal and family’s needs. Argus faculty train students to assist owners whose pets have a chronic or serious illness, facilitate end-of-life discussions and offer grief support and education to clients.

In time, Shaw hopes to offer continuing education programs for practicing veterinarians to help them hone their communication skills.

Shaw is currently working on two research projects, one that looks at gender differences in communication – whether or not male and female veterinarians communicate differently with their clients – and another that looks at how communication at the beginning of the veterinary visit impacts the quality of care for the animal patient.

Shaw said that an awareness of the importance of effective communication in veterinary medical practice came to her at a young age. As a teenager, she worked as a veterinary assistant in a practice where she saw first-hand the importance of connecting with the client. As a new DVM graduate from Michigan State University in private practice, she wasn’t prepared to face the interpersonal challenges presented by her veterinary team or her clients. That realization led her down a very non-traditional path for veterinarians – one focusing equally on caring for animals and meeting the needs of pet owners.

Shaw earned her DVM degree in 1994. She worked initially as a veterinarian in private practice for two years and then for three years as an instructor in the problem-based learning curriculum at Cornell University.  While at Cornell, she founded Cornell Companions, an animal-assisted therapy program, served as an adviser to the Pet Loss Support Hotline and was a practicing veterinarian with Cornell’s community practice service. She then completed a Ph.D. in social epidemiology with a special emphasis on veterinary-client-patient communication at the University of Guelph in Canada, where she also helped to develop the school’s pet loss hotline and Community Medicine Service.

Shaw serves on the advisory board of the International Conference on Communications in Veterinary Medicine and, most recently, was on faculty at Western University of Health Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, as an epidemiologist and communication specialist.