Updated August 22, 1999 Modified and converted to HTML May 12, 1998 JM Gay
Keep the report short, direct and concise.
The shorter it is, the more likely it is to be read. The best arrangement depends upon the client's needs. Usually, a single page cover letter followed by a formal report is best. In the report, place the most important information (the action items) first and place the supporting information behind. Appropriate graphs are worth a 1,000 words. Include plots of production or other measures smoothed over time between groups if changes and differences support the investigation conclusions. Your primary role is to provide concise, critically evaluated information on which the client can base their decisions.
Describe the purpose of the investigation and the letter in the opening paragraph.
There may be several major problems in the herd; these may or may not be related, and the owner’s perception of the problem scope may be different than yours. Thus, you must define explicitly the problem to which the letter is directed. To provide a benchmark for future comparison, briefly describe the major indicators of the problem. This will also help ensure that you receive proper credit if your recommendations are successful as success tends to have many fathers.
Provide a prioritized action list:
Include only those items that are necessary to control the problem at hand.
Provide sufficient, specific technical detail of exactly "What, Where and When".
For example: "Give every calf a 2 ml BoSe intramuscular injection . . .." rather than "Give calves selenium injections." You will have to judge how much detail a particular client needs. Any misunderstandings due to lack of detail are your responsibility and failures due to such will be blamed on you.
Adapt action statements to the specific herd management situation.
For example: "Give every calf a 2 ml BoSe intramuscular injection when it is moved from the maternity pen." rather than "Give every calf a 2 ml BoSe intramuscular injection." Does your recommendation fit into the herd management scheme and can it be done with available resources? If it doesn't, it won't get done.
Do not include extraneous explanatory remarks in this list.
The fewer the items, the more likely they will get done. Even though many management defects may be involved, a short prioritized list of 4 items has much more likelihood of getting action than, say, 15 items. You, rather than the client, are in the best position to choose the short list most likely to succeed. Consider the management capacity of the operator. Does the individual appear to be capable of incorporating the recommendations, particularly if the changes increase management intensity? Strive to incorporate the concepts of Total Quality Management.
Cover the justification for these action items (the "Why") in the discussion of the epidemiologic diagnosis.
Focus on the epidemiologic diagnosis.
Provide a brief summary of the problem biology if relevant. The discussions of disease biology, laboratory analyses and management evaluation should augment the client’s understanding and acceptance of the epidemiologic diagnosis and should provide a basis upon which the client can make their decisions. Resolving important conflicts between information sources is your role. If available, include literature and on-line references that directly support your conclusions. If you think the client will benefit from the information, place copies of particularly important materials in an appendix.
Summarize laboratory results in brief tables; attach actual reports as an appendix.
Do not give exhaustive verbal descriptions. Refer to the hypothesis or question to which the sampling was directed and bring attention to those results that support or refute the epidemiologic diagnosis and the action items.
Summarize the management evaluation.
What aspects of the management program need to be strengthened to prevent future problems? On large operations, employee involvement and training are important components that must be included. Limit the summary of the evaluation to a brief discussion of management defects that are central to the disease problem at hand (i.e., part of the epidemiologic diagnosis). Don't provide an item-by-item recapitulation of the entire management program. Compliment the aspects of the management program that are deemed exceptionally good (i.e., as encouragement), do this in the summation, keep it short, and don’t be disingenuous. Excesses will reduce your credibility and will offend the producer.
Provide information on follow-up and what to expect from the changes.
How quickly will the problem likely resolve if the changes are made? What should be monitored in the near term and when should you be called if these benchmarks aren't met? (see 10e). Briefly describe other possibilities that could be investigated if this doesn't appear to be working? If you think it is necessary to encourage action, briefly describe the probable outcome if the recommended steps are not taken.
If applicable, provide specific details on a monitoring program.
What can the producer most effectively and economically monitor to prevent recurrence of the problem? For example, should periodic tests be run on selected, high risk animals to monitor for the occurrence of subclinical disease? Developing an effective, efficient monitoring program is often an important part of problem resolution.
Provide essential background information but only if it is needed.
If the lack of understanding or an incorrect understanding of the disease process by management was a component of the problem, provide a concise summary of this essential information. What crucial but missing information that, if the producer had, would have prevented this problem? On the other hand, if the producer understands the essential information well, I recommend not including this section.
Protect yourself in future litigation.
Do not include any statements that you are not willing to defend in a lawsuit, whether a party or an expert witness. Include all information that you would want present in your report if it were to become part of a lawsuit.
This is particularly true if errors by outside parties are involved in the problem and are likely to lead to legal action.
Clearly state and meet all the requirements of the AMDUCA regulations if your recommendations involve off-label drug use.
Clearly state any risks of your recommendations.
For example, were for some reason you to recommend that an injection of gentamicin be given to all calves showing signs of a particular problem, clearly state that gentamicin is not an approved drug for cattle, that an extended (e.g., 18 months) withdrawal time prior to slaughter is absolutely necessary to avoid tissue residue violations and the potential consequences of a violative residue being detected.
Clearly describe any public health risks.
For example, making recommendations for resolving a Listeria abortion problem in sheep or salmonellosis in calves without mentioning the human health risks may haunt you later.
Avoid creating overly optimistic expectations.
Refer to historical experience in other herds (not by name!). For example "In herds where the above milking time hygiene steps were successfully implemented, within three months there has been a marked reduction in contagious pathogen spread as indicated by a fall in the number of new clinical cases, . . . ."
In letters that result from invited consultations, reinforce the relationship between the client, the private veterinary practitioner and other involved professionals.
Extend professional courtesy to the other professionals and individuals that have been involved with the problem. With the client's permission, the earlier you contact these professionals the better for your investigation. Note any recommendations that the practitioner or other professionals have made that are similar to the ones made in this letter. For example, "As Dr. __ has recommended ..." If laboratory results are extensive and may lead to client questions, include a statement to the effect that "You may wish to discuss these laboratory results with Dr. __." In the summation, include a sentence such as "We recommend that you discuss the details involved in implementing these recommendations with Dr. __." Any disagreements with other professionals should be resolved in private elsewhere. They may know something about the operator, the premises and the problem that you do not.
CC: the letter to the private practitioner and the other professionals, such as nutritionists and extension personnel, that have been involved with the problem.
Above all else, recognize that with time the faintest pen is stronger than the strongest mind. What isn't written down is at risk of being forgotten or, worse, misconstrued.