Is It Your Vet's Job to Keep the Cost of Care Down?

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“Veterinarians are in it for the money. If it was just about caring for pets, they wouldn’t charge so much.”

This is one of the most common misperceptions I’ve heard from pet owners. And let me tell you, it hurts.

Personally, I’m not in this career for the cash. Like most of my colleagues, I do it because I love it, and I chose veterinary medicine over other careers that might have been more lucrative. But I completely understand why frustrated pet owners say such things sometimes. As consumers, we’ve all been there — feeling as if all anyone cares about is getting money from us. That feels even worse when we are under stress and finances are tight. It’s no wonder these emotions frequently bubble up for pet owners caring for sick or injured loved ones.

Whenever I look at a cost estimate for a pricey surgical procedure, diagnostic test or medical therapy, I can’t help cringing. It’s not because I don’t understand why the cost is what it is — medicine is a sophisticated and technology-based field — it’s because I worry about how it will affect possibly cash-strapped owners and their pet-in-need.

But what should my role be, as a veterinarian, in keeping costs low? I wonder about that often, and I’ve never seen or heard an answer. It certainly wasn’t a topic covered in veterinary school.

Costs, Ethics and Care

How much should cost factor into the treatment plans offered to pet owners? Should medical options be withheld if the veterinarian knows they are too expensive for a pet owner to afford? Is it unethical to offer only the highest-quality care that promises the greatest chance for success, if you know some pet owners won’t be able to afford it? What about offering only the least expensive option when others may offer greater chances of success? And what about treatment options that are affordable, but which the veterinarian doesn’t believe in as strongly — should those even be offered? All of these options make me uncomfortable.

When faced with such questions, I remind myself that there is more than one way to approach most medical problems. Cost is only one of the factors that dictate which path to take. When I develop a medical treatment plan, I keep three other factors in mind to weigh against the cost question:

1. Pet owner circumstances. People live their lives under a variety of circumstances. These differences are particularly obvious when we discuss veterinary care options. For example, some of us have a house full of pets that all require consideration, while others have a single “furbaby” who gets as much attention as we have to give. Some people have flexible work schedules that allow for frequent treatments, assistants who are able to help give medications and rehabilitate injuries, advanced medical training of their own, pets who are willing patients or boatloads of disposable income (although these people are few and far between). Others of us do not have any of these things when faced with a veterinary care need.

The way we approach medical treatments is highly dependent on the particular circumstances of both the medical case and the pet owner. Some plans will work well and be effective for one pet owner but not for another due to that person’s particular situation.

But just remember: Your veterinarian can’t know what your personal circumstances or limitations are unless you share them.

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