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Really, Mr. Fenton?

Posted April 23, 2015 @ 3:23pm | by Heidi Brenegan, MBA, CVPM

While reading Peter Fenton’s piece in the Washington Post last night, my blood pressure began to rise. I feel Mr. Fenton not only failed to detail important nuances in his “article,” but in many ways, did a disservice to veterinarians, pet owners, and pets alike in his one-dimensional tale. Please allow me to explain.

I have worked in animal emergency facilities for almost twenty years. I can say that in the facility for which I now work, we feel it is our responsibility to help pet owners adopt the care plan that best fits their pet and their family’s finances. It is also our responsibility to provide a written treatment plan with the associated costs, understanding that the condition of the patient may change while it is hospitalized and a pet owner will need to know if major changes to that plan occur. It is up to you, the pet owner to both voice concerns about cost of care and inquire as time passes about the current state of your bill. If both parties fulfill these responsibilities, an owner should never be “shocked,” as Mr. Fenton says he was, when it comes time to pay the bill.

Mr. Fenton’s statement that “many owners are reacting to sticker shock by not bringing in pets at all” simply doesn’t correlate to the statistics that follow; namely, that 23 million pets don’t receive care because their owners live at or below the poverty line. Pets whose owners live at or below the poverty line are unlikely to have ever received regular care (preventive or emergency,) because poverty usually means these owners are having to choose between care for their pets and rent, or care for their pets and feeding themselves and their children. Conflating his own situation with pet owners at or below the poverty line is irresponsible, as is assuming that these pets ever received care at all and there has suddenly been a sea change in their level of care due to rising care costs.

While I am not a veterinarian, I have worked in the profession for thirty years. I know very few veterinarians making anywhere near $120,000 a year. Those few are either veterinary specialists or practice owners. Veterinary specialists spend 12 years earning their education, go into a residency, and then take a rigorous exam to become board-certified. They still make far less than their counterparts in human medicine. The practice owners that I know who make about $120,000 a year spent six days a week, 12 hours a day, building that practice for at least a decade before they came to enjoy that level of salary. Few of our emergency veterinarians make that income, and they work very long hours at night, on the weekend, and over holidays. Again, none of them make as much as an emergency MD.

Of course some veterinarians take advantage of pet owners! I have another newsflash for you, Mr. Fenton—some teachers aren’t good people. There are also some bad apples in the legal profession. You should know that some journalists intentionally mislead their readers with sensationalistic headlines. Oh, and I should probably warn you about the used car dealer I bought my car from. Veterinarians still consistently rank highly on Gallup Polls’ list of the most trusted professions. There’s a reason for that—it takes character, stamina, and a desire to help creatures that cannot speak for themselves to become a veterinarian. (Beyond that, it takes stellar grades and years of working at low-paying animal-related jobs to even get INTO vet school.)

I will agree with Mr. Fenton that veterinarians need more payment options than just medical credit cards. There are other options available. However, I don’t blame vets for being gun-shy about offering clients the ability to pay over time. They’ve been burned too many times, often by owners who, like Mr. Fenton, loudly proclaim that their pet is family, money is no object, even, as the author states in the last paragraph of his article, “I [will] pay anything to save him” and then adopt an attitude of “shock” when presented with the bill for the medical treatment which, in no exaggeration, saved their pet’s life.

And what about the care Mr. Fenton's cat, Orangey, received? Orangey received radiographs, pain medications, and 48 hours of care for $968. Even excluding the radiographs and pain medications, that means the hospital received about $20 per hour of care that they provided to Orangey. I know our emergency facility often has at least one, possibly two technicians working with each animal in the hospital. We have client care team members to answer the phones and technicians’ assistants so that the technicians can dedicate their time to working with the patients. We have an emergency veterinarian always in the building, directing the care of our patients. We are open 24 hours a day, so our fixed facility costs run round-the-clock. Since we’re an emergency facility, we have to have a state-of-the-art in-house laboratory (because we can’t wait two days for results.) We also have the best in radiology systems, and we have those radiographs read by specialists (because we have to be very clear about what’s wrong with pets in a critical condition.) We also have an ultrasound and a CT. We don’t use them on every case, but if your pet needs that level of diagnostics at three in the morning, don’t you want to know it’s available? Does it even sound reasonable to suggest that all of this (and much, much more!) could be provided for less than $20 per hour?

It is true that pet owners are getting less care for their pets than in previous years. But the reasons are varied and far more complicated than Mr. Fenton suggests. The 2011 Bayer Study on Veterinary Care Usage found several reasons for declining veterinary visits among pet owners:

  • Pet owners are still feeling the impact of the recent recession.
  • Many consumers cite “sticker shock,” thinking veterinary costs too high.
  • As mentioned in Mr. Fenton’s article, the number of veterinarians practicing companion animal medicine is outpacing pet ownership.
  • Many consumers consult Dr. Google instead of taking their pet to the vet.
  • The majority of cat owners surveyed in the study said that they do not take their cats to the vet because it is too stressful on themselves and the cat.
  • Many pet owners still do not understand the value of preventive healthcare for pets.

Only two of these six reasons are financially motivated, and only one of those two is under the control of veterinarians.

I appreciate that Mr. Fenton included a link to the Consumer Reports article that he merely summarizes as “but Consumer Reports says [pet insurance is] rarely worth the price.” I was surprised by that assertion, so I read the article myself. Consumer Reports used as their test, “the lifetime vet bills of Roxy, a 10-year-old beagle in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She [had] been basically healthy but has had a few costly episodes, including three visits to a veterinary emergency room, two dental cleanings under anesthesia, and her share of ear and eye infections and gastrointestinal distress.” Well, it’s no wonder Consumer Reports found that, in Roxy’s case, pet insurance wasn’t worth the cost. Hopefully, we can assume she’s getting vaccinations, annual heartworm tests, and examinations, but right off the bat, I can freely assert that two dental cleanings under anesthesia in ten years is very likely sub-par care. There is also no mention of routine bloodwork to check for underlying conditions, radiographs to check for cancer (she is a senior dog, after all) or even a fecal check to make sure she’s parasite free. Consumer Reports might have wanted to consult an actual veterinarian to clarify the current standard of care prior to randomly deciding that Roxy was getting good (or even average) veterinary care. Also excluded from Mr. Fenton’s article was Consumer Reports’ recommendation that, in lieu of insurance, pet owners put money aside in an emergency fund to help them cover the costs of care just like the care Orangey received.

I understand, Mr. Fenton. Articles with more substantive reporting don’t generate the Facebook exposure yours has received. Good veterinarians (both family practice and emergency) have been bullied by people telling one-sided stories for decades. They’ll shrug and move on, continuing to do the work they’ve been doing because they love animals and want to do right by them.

I think what is most telling about your article is that you were able to spare only one sentence of gratitude for the nameless individuals who, by your own admission, saved your cat’s life. Instead, you spent a lot of time and virtual ink lambasting them for daring to charge for the value they have so clearly rendered.

 
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