Why Can’t Veterinarians Say "I Don't Know”?

Dr. Patty Khuly

What would you do if your vet told you 'I don't know'?

Who would’ve thought that those three little words would be so hard to say? In fact, it wasn’t until I graduated from vet school that I got clued into the complex psychology –– and politics ––of saying “I don’t know.”

If there’s one thing everyone loves to hate about doctors –– be they physicians, veterinarians, or any other denomination of highly educated expert –– it’s the fact that we share an almost pathological aversion to the admission of ignorance.

Which is kind of a conundrum, really. People expect us to be impeccably expert in all our professional affairs, a fact which predisposes them to feeling miffed when we won’t –– or can’t –– ‘fess up to our fallibility.

What’s up with that?

Everyone knows that doctors have a big sense of self and veterinarians are no exception. We’ve earned the ego inflation, we often say. After all, we’re super-skilled and, what’s more, we’re usually held uncomfortably accountable when we mess up. All of which makes it extra-tough for us to admit when we’re wrong.

Indeed, it can be impressively stressful for veterinarians to ‘fess up. But that’s not just a function of our education and our outsized egos. As I intimated earlier, it’s also because plenty of pet owners would rather we NOT admit we have no idea. They want to believe we’re as flawless as our popular culture depicts us.

It’s an altogether too common doctorly dilemma, one that contributes mightily to the sin of omission we commit when we fail to mention the obvious: that we don’t have all the right answers.

Why so sinful? For a couple of reasons:

  1. Because whenever we set ourselves up as cognitively superior to the extent that we can no longer reveal our defects, we fashion an artificial distance between ourselves and those who rely on our professional judgment. Unfortunately, this aloofness can lead to a series of disconnects in normal communication so that our clients fail to ask the questions they want and get the answers they need.

    And that’s a big deal. But here’s what really gets me about the misguidedness of “I don’t know” professionalism:
  2. Being unable to truly understand that we don’t know keeps us from being as thoughtful and considerate as we might be otherwise. Paradoxically, accepting our human limits not only makes us more careful, it ultimately makes us more willing to evolve and grow.

The good news is that the trend supporting the perception of professional infallibility is rapidly on the decline. Not only are pet owners and patients increasingly unwilling to tolerate this kind of doc-as-God thinking, vet schools and other professional programs are actively looking for ways to insert the notion of human imperfection into our medical curricula.

After all, what all kinds of medicine needs most is a heightened sense of humanity. And how better to get there than to lay claim to our very human limitations?

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