Young Veterinarians: Don't Let Mistakes Distract You

Learn from mistakes, but don’t allow them to distract you from your next patient.
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Learn from mistakes, but don’t allow them to distract you from your next patient.

Every veterinarian wants every case to go according to plan. Our goal is to achieve 100% accuracy when diagnosing and treating our patients. When this happens, it is an incredible feeling. It helps the rest of the rest of the day go by more smoothly, and even makes difficult clients seem easier to deal with.

What happens when things don’t go right? What do you do when the colic surgery that you were convinced a horse needed doesn’t find a lesion? Or when you have treated a horse with everything that should have improved its condition, but it only gets worse?

As a young veterinarian, I have found that these situations are among the most challenging parts of developing my personal brand of medicine. Coping with the feelings of failure and learning to rebuild the fragile confidence that young veterinarians have in themselves can be a grueling process. We don’t have the benefit of falling back on years of experience to assure ourselves that we made the right choices. At best, we hopefully have a mentor or two around who can help with this, but many of us are left to muddle through it on our own.

I have found it helpful to draw on a lesson from one of my high school athletic coaches. When our game plan didn’t work the way we expected, or something went wrong, he encouraged us to have a “short memory.” The underlying psychology is that you have to let go of what just happened, or you risk compromising your next action because your thoughts were distracted by what went wrong.

This lesson has value in the veterinary profession. The times that things have gone awry with a patient, it was not the only animal I was seeing that day. If I spent time dwelling on that fact, I put my next patients at risk because I wasn’t giving them my full attention. Instead, I needed to focus on that next case and approach it with the same confidence I would have if the previous case had gone right.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t learn from our mistakes. There are always ways that we can improve our processes and treatments. It simply is a reminder that no one gets every case exactly right. Instead, we have to accept that each case comes with an element of unpredictability. We have to apply our full effort and skill to each case to find success. To divide ourselves with the confidence-killing burden of past problems and failures only ensures that we are more likely to miss something in our next case.

Zach Loppnow, DVM, is an equine veterinarian at Anoka Equine Veterinary Services in Elk River, Minnesota. 

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