I'm big on learning lessons anywhere I can. In veterinary medicine it's the human medical profession that offers us the most cues: Whether it's basic dentistry or hardcore radiation oncology, human researchers and medical providers usually pave the way. But sometimes … it's the other way around.

Consider human health insurance and managed care. Maybe — just maybe — vet medicine's got the upper hand. That's what I argued, anyway, in a recent column for USA Today (catch it under Life online every Friday).

Yes, ultimately the pet health insurance industry has a lot to teach human health … if only because it's based on a competitive, fee-for-service model in which everyone participates, competes and questions costs every step of the way.

Sure, I qualified this bold statement like crazy:

Nonetheless, it's unlikely that pet insurance, as it's currently designed, could ever be held up as a model for human health insurance … the difference between pets and humans is responsible for this disconnect. The human-animal divide is vast and lies fundamentally in the willingness of an individual to shoulder any cost, no matter how huge, to save themselves or their children, while the reality is otherwise for pets.

"Why? Because most of us consume health care for our pets with the almighty stop-treatment figure buried somewhere inside our very human brains. Like it or not, pets are not like Grandma.

I caught lots of flak for this (from both pro and con camps), but I stood firm. Lessons can and should be learned … if only so that someone can do a better job bringing humane treatment solutions to a human hospital near you.

And I'm not the only veterinarian who thinks this way. Dr. Karen Oberthaler (a VMD like me) just penned a piece for Newsweek along these lines. Here's an excerpt:

When I say I'm a veterinary oncologist, I am usually met with a bemused, slightly incredulous reaction. I'm often asked, 'Do people really treat their pets for cancer?' As a matter of fact, they do. Not only do I administer radiation and chemotherapy to cats and dogs (not to mention the occasional ferret and hedgehog) on a daily basis, but I work in one of the most sophisticated veterinary hospitals in the country, with a neurosurgeon, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, and a host of other specialists. Pet owners routinely rack up $10,000 bills to save the life of an animal that they consider a beloved member of the family.

After this intro, here's what she offers (among other choice tidbits):

No family wants to subject its already sick pet to uncomfortable tests or dump thousands of dollars into dead-end diagnostics. So why do we do that to our grandparents? Clearly the stakes are different: we're talking about the people who brought us into the world. Vets, also, are not saddled with the threat of career-ending malpractice lawsuits. While most pets are treated like children, legally animals are property — I can't be sued for more than their face value. We're also not buried under paperwork, which accounts for our ability to spend more time with clients.

She's got a point. What's more, she offers plenty of others. Now, if only human medicine would see fit to sit up and listen.


Dr. Patty Khuly