Is it the Veterinarian’s Responsibility to Provide Affordable Health Care?
I worked in an emergency hospital for several years, and while you might think the stress of dealing with critically ill and injured pets would be the worst part, it wasn’t—not by a long shot. The worst part was hearing this from an angry owner: “You’re only in this for the money.” We hear it every day, and it never stings any less.
One case in particular sticks out: AJ, a one year old pup who had been vomiting for several days came to see me. We are always concerned about foreign bodies in young dogs, and I thought I might have felt something when I palpated his abdomen. I recommended x-rays, which the owner said they didn’t have money to do; they just wanted some nausea medications.
I understood their limitations, but I was still incredibly nervous about sending them home with the knowledge that AJ might have something life threatening in his abdomen and would prefer that they save their money for surgery if necessary.
As an employee, I could no more give away services than a Macy’s employee could give you a pair of shoes. To do so would be stealing, and could get me fired. But for my own peace of mind, I took an x-ray anyway to make sure AJ didn’t have a ball in there. I spoke to the practice manager and explained the situation, offering to have the cost taken out of my paycheck (she found a way to cover it from our angel fund).
Secure in the knowledge that AJ would probably be OK with a little rest, I went back in to discuss his discharge with the owners. Before I could open my mouth, the owner looked up from his iPhone and laid into me: “If you cared you would have done x-rays for free! It doesn’t cost you anything! You’re a terrible vet and you’re only in it for the money!”
And when I told him what we had done, all he had to say was, “Well that’s exactly what you should have done.” Then he left.
All services cost something. The technician who took AJ’s x-ray draws a salary, as do I for the time I spent interpreting it. The machine itself costs money to maintain, as does the software system where we store the images. Were we to donate services to all who wanted and needed it, we would be out of business in a matter of weeks. AJ’s owner, who was holding a $700 piece of electronics in his hand, made the choice not to make his pet’s care a priority but was happy to leave me and the other wonderful clients who contributed to our angel fund to pay the bill instead. He never did thank us.
In that particular emergency hospital I would often spend over half my time during a shift calling charities on behalf of clients, trying to help them fund lifesaving care, and taking me away from a whole lot of other sick pets who needed my help. I wish I could say that was an uncommon occurrence but it happens all the time, and it’s a major contributor to veterinary burnout. It broke my heart to not be able to perform tests or procedures due to cost, and I cried many nights.
I do understand that veterinary care is expensive, oftentimes prohibitively so. Those high costs reflect an increasing demand for high-tech diagnostics and care rivalling that of human hospitals—though I would challenge anyone who thinks our fees are out of control in comparison to that of human hospitals, where a single exam in the ER can run you thousands of dollars.
I understand that the cost of care is a problem for many people. On the one hand, I don’t think it’s an issue that should be left to individual veterinarians to figure out, nor should they be in the habit of floating loans to clients who 90% of the time never pay them back. On the other hand, I think there are many ways our profession, along with owners, can work together to make veterinary care more affordable, and as an industry, I’d like to see us be proactive in helping you.
From an industry standpoint, I support the many veterinarians who are trying to make affordable care options available by partnering with financial services who can help provide payment plans for clients. It is simply not feasible for individual practices to hope clients will pay them back, but we are seeing a number of businesses that can help make that happen. While we can’t be in the business of both providing and funding pet care, continuing to explore these partnerships can result in increased access to care benefits for everyone.
As an owner, please understand that you have a proactive role to play as well. Pet insurance is quite often a literal lifesaver. In times of catastrophic injury or illness it can be the difference between life and euthanasia, and there are hundreds of insurance options out there.
We also rely on you to convey your constraints to us so we can work with you. We all understand that you just might not have hundreds of dollars available at a moment’s notice. While I cannot change what our costs are, I promise I will do my best to make the most of what we have. That might mean pursuing diagnostics in stages, or trying a course of medication instead. At the end of the day, we are all trying to do our best by you.
If I wanted to be wealthy, there are about 500 other jobs I could have chosen that make more sense than this one. I still wouldn’t change it for the world, and I will always work as hard as I can to make lives better for pets and the people who love them.
Image via Shutterstock