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Balint in Veterinary Medicine
Shana O'Marra

As a veterinarian, I have had many interactions with the humans involved in a pet’s care that have left me unsettled, and frankly overwhelmed.  Most veterinarians are acutely aware that for many people, their relationship with their pet is the only relationship where they feel loved without condition or judgment, and may be their only link to the community.  Our clients bring their accumulated grief, fears, and personal traumas that shape their relationship with their beloved companion.  Our sense of responsibility for our patient and their human owners can weigh heavily on us.

In my early years as a veterinarian, I coped with this sense of responsibility with a combination of rationalization and emotional distancing.  As I matured as a clinician and began mentoring house officers, I realized that these strategies only impaired my ability to connect with clients and distanced me from my sense of purpose in practice. I began searching for resources on how to equip my residents with tools to protect themselves from emotional while remaining connected to their “why”. I was cautious about what to offer trainees. My residents didn’t need another breathing exercise or guided meditation. They needed to understand that they were not alone in struggling with these relationships, and to have a productive means to engage with them.

I reached out to the American Balint Society via the ABS website and connected with Eran Metzger. Eran kindly answered my endless questions and invited me to visit his Boston Balint group of human physicians. I was struck by the Balint model. What a simple, yet robust tool to get at the core of our practice! And I wondered if we can offer this group process - of using our intellectual curiosity and emotional honesty - in veterinary practice?

I attended the 2018 Boston Balint Intensive Training and had the privilege of being a group member. What a revelation this was to me! With a shift in perspective, possibility was injected into seemingly unsolvable dilemmas… and where there wasn’t possibility, there was perspective, and humor, and a shared sense of grief.

 When I moved to Portland, I connected with Jill Romm, who volunteered to help me start a Veterinary Balint Group and act as co-leader, and is also supervising me through the leader credentialing process.

After attending the Spokane intensive, I felt even more urgency to get things started.  Jill and I piloted our Portland Area Veterinary Balint Group in August 2019.  Our grand experiment has evolved, as we learned about the unique challenges a veterinary group presents and as we go through the growing pains of establishing a new group.  In March 2020, we converted our group to a Zoom online format and now have group members joining from across the US.

Whereas Balint group work traditionally focuses on the patient-clinician dyad, veterinary medicine presents a treatment triad. Our relationship with our patient influences our relationship with our client, just as much as their relationship with their pet influences their relationship with us.  While this sounds complex, for our group members, this triad of relationships is intuitive.

Balint has proved an elegant and useful tool to contemplate and cultivate a more intentional awareness of the human aspects of veterinary medicine. As we learn from this pilot project, we hope to offer Balint group work to more Veterinary professionals.


 "Restoring the Core of Clinical Practice: What is a Balint group and how does it help?" by Laurel Milberg, PhD and Katherine Knowlton, PhD. Available in paperback or ebook Order Now

The American Balint Society
, is a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to improving the therapeutic relationships between healing professionals and their clients/patients. The American Balint  Society is a member society of the International Balint Federation