One thing that caught me totally off-guard when I started working in the veterinary field was the lack of education the public had regarding the cost of healthcare for their pets, and how little we, as veterinary professionals, talk about the topic with owners—until it’s too late.
Isn’t the financial management of a pet just as important for their healthcare as proper nutrition and regular checkups?
Have you yet had the experience of having to send home an animal with sub-standard care, who has an otherwise treatable condition, only because the owners didn’t have funds or credit to support the treatment plan? We all go into this industry to help, not to turn away. There is nothing worse than feeling like you sent home an animal for the wrong reasons.
I think it is important to talk about financial management for both us and our clients.
When we enter the veterinary field, we are often ill-prepared to discuss finances with clients. Yet, it’s a conversation that can make the difference between an animal being treated and an animal being euthanized. If we never open the conversation we will never get better at improving the lives of both pets and their humans.
I will never forget the first low-income case that I saw at my first job in a vet clinic. It nearly traumatized me. A man who appeared distressed walked into the clinic for his appointment, which was titled “mouth problem.” He said his cat, Marvin, had gotten into something outside and he had no idea what happened, but the animal’s skin was falling off. I opened the cat carrier for his TPR. I had never seen something that looked so shocking. The skin on his mandible from cheek to cheek was torn off and was just hanging off of his face. Marvin was howling in panic and extremely stressed. It was all-around gruesome.
“The vet will be coming in, and he’ll know what to do,” I thought to myself. When the vet arrived, I patiently waited outside the exam room to see how I could help and what we needed to do to put his face back on.
Next thing I know, Marvin is back in his carrier and he’s on his way home.
I was so surprised. How could you possibly send this cat home in such a gruesome looking condition? My emotions took the better of me and I immediately raced to the vet to demand answers. The response I received was nearly as shocking as what I had just seen.
“You can’t simply sew that back together… The teeth and gums are tricky to suture around and he will need to see someone more capable. He doesn’t have any funds to go to a specialist; he barely had enough to cover the exam fee, food and meds. We have no choice but to wait until we can see if someone can do a pro-bono case or until we figure out something else.” The seasoned vet looked both apathetic and defeated.
It was the first time I realized there is a very real limit to what veterinary staff can do to help animals. We simply can’t do pro-bono work for every low-income client we take on. It costs money to maintain a vet hospital. A lot of money. There are inventory costs, staff, education, computers and tech, heating and a/c, and IV pumps… I could go on and on. We simply could not run as a hospital if we only did pro-bono work, but clients don’t necessarily know this.
It’s become common to see threads on social media that involve conflict between the veterinary professionals and consumers about cost of care. It usually goes something like this” client complains about the cost, says something rude, veterinary staff becomes defensive and both parties end up angry. To this I say, we can handle this better than we have been. If the topic is reduced to mere griping on social media it does not give us much room to open the door for more constructive conversation.
We can do better than this.
Clients who are surprised at their vet bill and react with anger is just as directed at themselves as it is to us. In my experience, it has been counter-productive to respond to them in the same fashion. If we are considerate of them and their pets, despite their demeanor, we have a better chance at cooperation.
What I find helpful is to put myself in their shoes. Have I ever been on the other side? What would it be like to have an accident with my own animal and not be able to treat him due to finances? It’s awful. And much of the reaction often stems from ignorance—I mean that without any negative connotation. Simply, people are unaware of the costs associated with pet ownership. When owners find themselves in an emergency with an unexpected cost, they can become quite stressed. A common phrase I hear is that “it’s a luxury to have a pet, not a right.” It might be easy to say, but this does not change the reality of what we see. Perhaps we can empathize with clients and respond to their anger and stress with a little more compassion.
There have been interesting changes in the veterinary industry and it is becoming more common for corporations to buy clinics. This new type of clinic and hospital ownership can come with some benefits like financial partnerships that are prompting more companies to begin financing for veterinary treatments. More pet insurance companies are on the market. In some cases, this certainly proves to be quite beneficial. On the other hand, for a student or someone with bad credit, to get a loan right away with a high interest rate to take care of their pet isn’t doing them any favors in the long term. Is insurance the only option? What about a trust fund for pet-care? How can we make this better?
To the new generation of veterinarians and technicians coming into the field—I say to you what I wish someone told me: prepare yourself to watch a distraught owner and sick animal walk out the door because they can’t afford proper treatment. Prepare yourself for financial conversations and the emotional content that catalyses. Prepare yourself to deal with angry clients. Arm yourself with education about finances. Then arm your clients with that same knowledge. Talk about pet financial management on that first puppy or kitten exam. Talk about the costs and risks. Then talk about ways we can prepare for those costs and risks. This is a very simple way we can potentially make a difference.
Who says we can’t change the status quo? What about inviting a financial representative to come to the clinic to talk about financial management to the staff (here’s to the notoriously low paid technicians out there and the vets with the giant student loans they’ll be paying off for decades) as well as what we can discuss with pet owners.
We get better by opening the conversation and then finding better options.
The technology in veterinary science and medical knowledge has increased exponentially in part because of the progress in human health. For many sick pets nowadays, it is not a question of whether we can save them or not (vet teams can practically run miracles) but a question of how much the pet owner is willing to do for treatment. As animal health practitioners, we know that most pets could be saved or have a longer life expectancy if it was not a question of budget.
This is where we stand: we have increased knowledge and expertise in the field standing beside limited resources to apply them. Mix these together, and you might struggle to find a peaceful night’s sleep. Let’s begin to remedy this by educating both ourselves and our clients on financial management and options to prepare ourselves for when we’ll need it.
By the way, that cat I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Marvin, did have the pro-bono work done. We reached out and found a wonderful veterinarian to suture the mouth properly and he recovered very well.
Not all are as lucky to have such a fate. NextGen, we’ve got work to do.