Support Network: Veterinary Medical Social Worker Serves Hospital Team and Clients

UW Veterinary Care social worker Rhonda Nichols, left, and social work intern Lee Xiong, right, support hospital clients, clinicians, staff, and students in processing difficult situations and emotions.
UW Veterinary Care social worker Rhonda Nichols, left, and social work intern Lee Xiong, right, support hospital clients, clinicians, staff, and students in processing difficult situations and emotions.

When Kevin Kasza entered his oncology clinical rounds as a fourth-year student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, he knew it would have some challenges.

Oncology, the study and treatment of cancer, can be an emotional, stressful component of veterinary practice. Clinicians not only handle complicated medical situations but often communicate with pet owners navigating difficult decisions.

Kasza saw this firsthand throughout his rounds, but one appointment stuck out. A client struggled to process their pet’s situation and seemed to be experiencing a mental health crisis.

“As veterinarians, we are not trained in crisis care or how to handle difficult situations like that,” Kasza reflects.

Fortunately, Kasza and other members of the client’s care team were able to discuss the situation with Rhonda Nichols, UW Veterinary Care’s new social worker. She joined the School of Veterinary Medicine in March 2022.

Nichols began her career in social work in 2001, when she graduated with a master’s degree from UW-Milwaukee. She has primarily worked in human mental and physical health care and supporting people with eating disorders. However, when Nichols learned about the social worker position at the SVM, she was immediately intrigued.

“I hadn’t actually heard of social workers in a field like this,” she says. “I thought this was so exciting. It makes so much sense to me why a social worker is needed in veterinary medicine.”

The idea of veterinary social work emerged in 2002 when the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Social Work created a post-graduate Veterinary Social Work certificate program. Since then, more veterinary universities and hospitals have brought in social workers. “Social workers are slowly trickling into the field,” Nichols says.

“Veterinary staff focuses their expertise on the animals. Social work is added to help the human needs involved, both with animal owners and staff.”

When people think of social workers, human health care is often the first scenario to come to mind. A social worker may support the patient and their family, for example, by talking them through their care and situation. They also support clinicians, helping to address stressful situations they encounter or helping communicate clients’ care options.

In veterinary medicine, a social worker operates similarly, working with an animal’s family and care team to help them through a crisis. Typically, in veterinary medical hospitals, client management is placed on the veterinarian. However, as Kasza experienced, veterinarians don’t often have abundant training in crisis management.

“Veterinary staff focuses their expertise on the animals. Social work is added to help the human needs involved, both with animal owners and staff,” Nichols says.

The human-animal bond is a significant, mutually beneficial relationship. Animals are seen as family members to many, making the loss or sickness of an animal companion challenging to process. Nichols helps guide UW Veterinary Care clients through such stressful events.

Nichols strives to understand the client’s relationship with their animal and their point of view when addressing that animal’s care, hoping to help them make the best choice for their animal and minimize regret and second-guessing in these emotionally taxing situations.

“The patients and clients are why everyone is here,” she says. “I’m trying to fill the emotional needs that come with the incredible relationships people have with their animals.”

Nichols spends her days responding to requests from faculty, staff, and students, talking with clients, and supporting those experiencing a variety of difficult situations, including processing the death of an animal. Eventually, she plans to implement a pet loss support group for clients.

“I want to let people know they are not alone when they lose a pet and feel these really significant emotions,” she says.

“The patients and clients are why everyone is here. I’m trying to fill the emotional needs that come with the incredible relationships people have with their animals.”

This summer, Nichols welcomed a social work intern, Lee Xiong, a graduate student from the UW–Madison Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work, who will build on the help provided.

In addition to client care, Nichols is also a resource for UW Veterinary Care employees. “Veterinary medicine is a highly demanding area of practice. I don’t think many people are very aware of that stress,” she says.

Mental health awareness in the workforce has been growing across all sectors, but especially in veterinary medicine. The job brings a range of stressors, including caring for ailing animals, compassion fatigue (the emotional and physical impact of caring for others), and financial stress over student loans. One in six veterinarians considers suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Veterinarians also have higher rates of anxiety and depression than other professions.

The pandemic brought even more pressures to veterinary clinics, with worker shortages amplifying an already stressful job. Many veterinarians and veterinary staff experienced increased burnout and compassion fatigue, with the effects still lingering.

The UW School of Veterinary Medicine is part of a global effort to take a more comprehensive look at the care and needs of veterinarians, staff, and students in training, implementing more mental health awareness and well-being practices. Nichols is part of this movement towards a better working and learning environment.

“Many schools of veterinary medicine are including licensed clinical social workers in the team-based approach to patient care,” says Chris Snyder, UW Veterinary Care director. “Having a social worker helps manage some of the emotional stress of client management that was historically managed by the doctors and staff.”

“In addition to being a great resource for clients, having a social worker available to debrief and discuss personal feelings and circumstances surrounding difficult cases helps staff process and maintain a healthy state of mind,” he adds.

The UW School of Veterinary Medicine is part of a global effort to take a more comprehensive look at the care and needs of veterinarians, staff, and students in training, implementing more mental health awareness and well-being practices.

Through office hours and on-demand support, Nichols can ease high-stress circumstances.

“I work to be a connecting point for staff to find other resources,” she says. “It’s important to have someone there to help process difficult situations. It is more helpful if people can process situations like this sooner, instead of secondary traumatic stress building.”

Additionally, Nichols liaises with residents and interns (veterinarians pursuing advanced training in specialty areas) and DVM students to explore complex parts of their clinical responsibilities, such as the situation Kasza experienced. She shares ways to communicate effectively with clients, handle stressful situations, and adopt various wellness practices. One goal is to equip trainees with tools to approach these situations when a social worker may not be present.

Overall, Nichols’ position helps move the school and teaching hospital towards a more supportive culture for those delivering and receiving compassionate veterinary medical care.

“As many communication rounds and classes as we may take, client communication and crisis help are not our main focus as a degree,” Kasza reflects. “Rhonda’s position is very valuable to make everyone feel safer and less burdened.”

Britta Wellenstein

This article appears in the winter 2022-23 issue of On Call magazine.


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