New York City-based writer Sharon Glassman was unhappy with her own health care experiences for some time when her three and a half-year-old Bichon Frisé, bb, began having urinary problems. “When I have a health issue, it’s only made worse by the hurdles I have to jump to see a doctor,” Glassman says. “With bb, we just called the vet and went in and her insurance didn’t question the veterinarian’s opinion that she needed an ultra-sound.”
Glassman wrote a humor piece for her blog comparing bb’s health care to her own, which hit a nerve for readers, many of whom responded with an “I’ve thought that, too.”
Trisha Joyce, DVM at New York City Veterinary Specialists, isn’t surprised. “In studies of public perceptions of certain professions, veterinarians rank pretty high in terms of being liked and trusted,” she says. “I’d say my personal experience backs that up.”
Here’s what doctors who treat people could learn from doctors who treat animals:
Explain Their Recommendations Doctors who treat humans are famously crunched for time. So while they will tell you what you to do, they won’t necessarily slow down to explain the rationale for procedures, let alone the pros and cons of their prescribed treatment. Veterinarians, whose clients are often reluctant to pay the out-of-pocket fees that pet healthcare requires, can’t simply assume that the pet owners will do as they say. “Vets are more in the position of having to ‘sell’ their therapy to the owner,” explains Dr. Joyce. “As a result, this probably makes us take a little more time to explain treatments, make sure the client gets it and is on board with what needs to happen. This may engender more of a team feeling in the owner.”
What to do if your veterinarian doesn’t: Politely slow him or her down and explain that you’re very interested in understanding your pet’s issue and treatment plan. Make eye contact to help illustrate your concern and to keep the conversation focused.
Familiarize Themselves with the Costs of Care Veterinarians know how much each procedure costs. Expenditure on veterinary care is discretionary, which means that veterinarians tend to do a much better job of explaining costs. Dr. Joyce realized this after her own physician failed to mention that while her fee for an outpatient surgery was only $2,000, additional costs, including anesthesia, hospital charges and pathology, hike the procedure cost to $7,000. “Insurance paid for it, but my high deductible meant that my out-of-pocket expense was much more than I’d anticipated. My clients would scream bloody murder if they got a bill that much higher than they’d been told. It’s just something veterinary medicine knows to be careful about.”
What to do if your veterinarian doesn’t: Tell your veterinarian that you’ll need an itemized list of all projected costs before proceeding, including those related to drugs, office visits, overnight hospital stays and aftercare.
Schedule Longer Appointments It’s probably not your doctor’s fault that he or she has to keep your appointment to 10 or 15 minutes (you can blame that one on managed care). However, you may notice that you feel less rushed when you visit your veterinarian, where the appointments generally run 20 minutes, sometimes even 30. “Plus,” adds Dr. Joyce, “we tend to have a more accommodating schedule with evening and Saturday hours. And we’re generally available for phone conversations.” Good luck getting your over-scheduled physician on the phone.
What to do if your veterinarian doesn’t: If you have some extra concerns about your pet’s well-being, schedule an appointment far enough in advance that you can ask the receptionist for five or ten minutes longer than is standard. If it’s in the schedule, you’re likely to get it.
Provide a Patient-Care Advocate When you take your pet to the vet, you are never the patient. This makes it intrinsically easier to keep your wits about you and get the information you need to ensure that you pet is receiving the best care. There is currently a lot of talk in the human health care industry about “patient advocates” — people who work for patients in much the way that you work for your furry friend, listening effectively and making sure that the veterinarian is clear. Glassman thinks this is a fantastic idea. “Having functioned as a patient advocate for bb, and watching how smoothly things go, has confirmed for me that there’s something really positive about that method.”
What to do if you can’t advocate: If you’re too anxious about your pet’s health to be an effective collector of information, bring a coolheaded friend along to do the work.
While your own doctor may be reluctant to take tips from the world of veterinary medicine, you can always hold out hope for what human medicine may eventually come to realize — in some ways, pet health care is a model for how even the tail-less among us would like to be treated.
Darcy Lockman is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Dog Daily. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Rolling Stone. She lives in Brooklyn with the prettiest pug dog in the five boroughs.