There was a time in history when it was possible for one person to know the sum total of all humanity’s knowledge. The multitudinous mysteries of science, philosophy, art and commerce all lay within the grasp of a single sage.

Visit the official website of the HBO series Game of Thrones.
Who’s still alive and who died horribly? Visit the official HBO website to find out.

Those days are long gone. Never mind natural philosophy; nowadays I have serious problems just keeping up with which Game of Thrones characters are still alive.

My principle worry about this (as with a lot of you, I suspect) is I will be unexpectedly fired back into the distant past and have to use my modern knowledge to fend for myself.

Realistically, I would have difficulty explaining how a bicycle works, let alone the internal combustion engine. I think I would even struggle with trousers.

Temporal dislocations aside, though, this isn’t as much a problem as it might seem, thanks to the miracle of the internet. Even though it can’t reside in a single person, the whole spectrum of human learning is available for free, and for all.

For ALL.

Including clients.

Being second-guessed

Our customers, more than ever, have access to a wealth of medical knowledge beyond anything I could have dreamed of when I was at university (we did have access to the internet back then, but it involved black screens with green text and I was far too busy watching The X-Files to have time for that). Anything said in the consult room can be checked and verified (or not) in the comfort of the client’s home – or even just outside the door on their smartphone.

Clients frequently arrive to see us armed with printouts from web pages, asking about a new treatment they’ve read about on one forum or another. Occasionally, they wonder why I used this antibiotic when everyone on Rat World knows pneumonia only responds to that one…

There are those in the profession who think this is a bad thing – nobody likes clients telling them what they should do, and they certainly don’t like being judged out of context by internet users. I do understand the frustration, especially the “out of context” bit, but internet users are past masters at this (for instance, I wonder if typing “honestly, I even think I would struggle with trousers” may one day come back to haunt me).

Not a problem

Stack of folders
There’s only so much knowledge someone can glean from an evening’s online research. Image: Korta / Fotolia.

I don’t want to sound too much like a motivational speaker here, but I’m here to tell you this is not a problem but, rather, an opportunity.

You see, there’s only so much knowledge someone can glean from an evening’s online research, and here’s where you discover all those years at vet school weren’t wasted after all (apart from the poultry ventilation lectures. Really. Don’t get me started).

Clients can research the details, but they generally lack the broad base of knowledge that – crucially – puts it all into context. I know how biological entities work. More importantly, I know how much I don’t know about how biological entities work.

When a client comes to me with a stack of online research, I listen to them. Nine times out of 10, I can quickly explain where they slightly missed the point, why the sites they’ve found are spurious or just plain wrong, or why their idea can’t work in this case. If the client doesn’t believe me – well, they’re perfectly entitled not to; they’re paying for my advice and it’s up to them what they do with it. One time out of 10, I’ll actually learn something.

However, in the vast majority of cases, I find talking through their thought processes, and explaining mine, helps to build trust with the client.

The power of reassurance

The longer I do the job, the more I realise the job of a vet isn’t only to heal, or to prescribe, or to operate. It’s to reassure. It’s a scary thing, going into a vet’s waiting room. People are worried about their companions. They’re worried about the future. We reassure them.

We tell them everything is going to be okay. We assure them, even if it gets rough, we’ll be with them and we’ll help. We offer the reassurance that, if and when the worst happens, we’ll be there. We reassure them this pain won’t last forever and we’ll be there to help all over again when the time comes for a new companion.

Doctor Google knows more than I could ever hope to, but his bedside manner is appalling. There’s a lot you can get from the internet, but reassurance is in short supply. It takes another human, someone who understands and cares about what you’re going through. That’s why it’s one of the most important things we can do – and that’s why internet research holds very few fears for me.

Now, can someone help me with these trousers?


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