Royal Canin

The Importance of a Debriefing Session

Genie Bishop, DVM, VHSC
Kelsey Creelman, LCSW, VSW

During an interactive webinar series, hundreds of vets and vet techs were asked if they held debriefing sessions after traumatic events in their clinics. The vast majority answered no, while many others were not sure what a debriefing session is. This article provides brief descriptions of debriefing sessions and an overview of how to conduct one.

Veterinary Debrief

A debriefing session is a non-blaming and collaborative conversation after an unfortunate incident, whether it be an unexpected patient death during surgery, a challenging client interaction, or a damaging social media post. These events often have a ripple effect and leave a lasting impact on the entire veterinary team. Debriefing sessions create a safe space for these staff members to reflect on and discuss their clinical and emotional responses related to the event. There are two commonly utilized types of debriefing sessions: Hot debriefing sessions happen within minutes of the incident, and cold debriefing sessions may happen weeks later. Hot debriefings are typically shorter in duration, while cold debriefings often result in longer and more in-depth discussions. Hot debriefing is usually the preferred method; however, sometimes cold debriefings are necessary to revisit the event after emotions and experiences have had additional time to be processed by the staff.

What should be included? Everyone involved in the incident should participate in the session. This may often include the entire team – from the surgeon to the front office staff, no one should be excluded.

When should it occur? In the case of an adverse surgical event, hot debriefing is best, while the facts are still fresh in everyone’s mind. Cold debriefings may be appropriate when staff members would like additional time to process their own emotions and experiences before coming back in a group setting. 

Where should it occur? Debriefing should be held in a private place where everyone feels safe. If at the clinic, it should be closed to bar interruptions so everyone can focus. Again, the tone should be curious and collaborative, not  accusatory. The debrief should focus on  a review of events and what could be done better in the future.

Who should conduct it? Ideally, a mental health professional should facilitate debriefings. They are trained to deal with emotional baggage that may be unpacked during the session. If your facility does not have a mental health professional, such as a veterinary social worker, on staff, it may be difficult to utilize one for a hot debrief. In these or similar cases, an impartial staff member who has received training could also conduct a debriefing. If a mental health professional is unable to conduct a debriefing, clear instructions on how to speak with one should be provided to team members following the debriefing to ensure they have access to necessary emotional support. 

University of Tennessee’s Veterinary Social Work program developed the following debriefing tool to help in these sessions.

Veterinary Wellbeing Debrief

  1. What situations made it hard to sleep or put aside thoughts of work when at home?
  2. What did you do well in that situation?
  3. What do you wish you had done differently?
  4. What did you learn?
  5. Is there anything you are grateful for in this situation, or just in general?
  6. Do you remember anything that was humorous about this situation or in this week?

Adopted from UTVSW Veterinary Wellbeing Debrief