The Cost of Veterinary Medicine
This next post was inspired through my interactions with our Facebook followers. A recurring theme that pops up on the site (and in my private practice as well) is the exceptional cost of veterinary medicine.
Many people feel that they are limited in the care that they can provide to their pets due to rising veterinary costs. Many have posted that they feel that their veterinarians are greedy and often run “unnecessary ” tests to drive up the costs of their veterinary visit. They are denied prescriptions for medicines and care for their pets if they don’t follow veterinary recommendations regarding diagnostics and treatments. Veterinarians are called cruel for denying care to a sick animal because their owners cannot afford the care or refuse the care that is deemed necessary by their vet.
The first thing that strikes me from all of this is that, in my opinion, the traditional relationship between veterinarian and pet owner has soured a bit. We are, it seems, a long way from the James Herriot days of veterinary medicine. Over the last decade or so there has been a dramatic increase in the availability of testing, specialty facilities (which rival top human hospitals in the diagnostics and care available for their patients), and equipment available to the general practitioner to help him/her in treating and diagnosing their patients (ultrasound, surgical lasers, digital x-ray, dental x-ray machines, flexible endoscopy, anesthetic monitoring equipment etc.).
These diagnostic and treatment modalities are invaluable in providing information to the veterinarian and in allowing us to diagnose and to treat patients that in the past would have been treated blindly, left undiagnosed, or even euthanized. Veterinary students are introduced to these advanced diagnostics and treatments in school nowadays, and the approach of a veterinarian towards his patient is expected to be on par with that of physicians in the human medical field; however, these diagnostic and treatment modalities come at a cost. A typical ultrasound used in private practice can run in excess of $50,000. An MRI machine, expected at any specialty facility, can run several million. If a veterinarian is to have these pieces of equipment available for her patients then someone must pay for it.
Perhaps the single most influential force driving up veterinary costs is the school debt that a veterinarian now graduates with. In 2010, for example, the average veterinarian graduated with over $138,000 in student loans (VIN NEWS Service). That debt is growing exponentially. It is not uncommon at all for us to have a recent grad tell us when applying for a job that they are $200-300.00 in debt. Incidentally, the average veterinary salary during that same year of 2010 was $67,000 (VIN NEWS SERVICE).
Veterinarians are not immune to other rising costs that are crippling most businesses in this tough economy. Rising fuel costs, the exploding costs of providing healthcare to employees, food costs, taxes, supplies, and prescription costs all cut dramatically into a veterinarian’s profit margin. Veterinarians are also well aware of rising unemployment and have seen many of their previously solvent clients now unable to pay bills. People, in this economy, are reluctant to get new pets and are taking their existing pets to the veterinarian less frequently.
In addition, there has been an explosion of online pharmacies. In 2010 PetMeds alone reported sales of $238 Million. This was $238 million dollars taken directly out of veterinary practices. Large companies like this buy products in huge bulk, often illegally, and receive huge discounts unavailable to the local veterinarian. When a veterinarian loses revenue through pharmacy sale losses, they must make up this income by raising other costs like exam fees or diagnostics. The money simply has to come from somewhere.
Most clients who argue that the cost of veterinary medicine is too high do not even take steps to help lower their own costs. Greater than 90% of pet owners do not own pet insurance for their pets even though costs are typically very low (around $50/month) and some plans pay up to 90% of costs when the animal is sick. There is usually a scramble to get the insurance once the pet is sick. Rightfully so, just as if someone was trying to buy fire insurance after their house burned down, they are not able to do so. When clients complain about costs, there are a variety of other options such as Care Credit where a client can receive interest free credit cards for their pet’s care. Often times this option is not enough to satisfy the disgruntled client. It is not that they want time to pay for the care, they simply are unable to or don’t feel that they should have to pay for the care. Similarly, there are often low cost clinics and shelters where people can take their pets if they have real financial burdens. Many times clients will object to the drive to get to one of these clinics or the wait times once there.
In defense of the disgruntled client, there are bad veterinarians just as there are bad people in any profession. I have often seen tests run unnecessarily. I have seen bills run up. I have seen animals hospitalized who clearly did not need to be and animals operated on who did not have to be. I can tell you horror stories that rival the worst dishonest auto mechanic (no knock on the auto mechanics!). The over-vaccination and early pushing of spaying and neutering, still prevalent in a lot of veterinary practices, is a driving force for this very website; however, for the most part, I feel that veterinarians are good people who care deeply about the animals that they are treating and try their hardest to be fair and honest.
I strive my best each and every day to treat people’s pets as if they were my own. I try to present all of the options to my clients. There is usually an “A plan” and a “B plan”, and I do my best to present them both to the client. We work every day trying to provide the best care that is possible within an owner’s budget. We have also done our fair share of charity work over the years and have rescued literally thousands of strays and treated them for free.
It is imperative that you develop this type of relationship with your veterinarian. When your veterinarian recommends testing or hospitalization, you should have the utmost confidence that that is what needs to be done. You should feel that there is an open dialogue with your veterinarian and that you are free to ask questions. You should feel that you are intimately involved in the process of diagnosing and treating your pet. If you are uncomfortable, keep looking until you find the veterinarian that you implicitly trust. You will find him or her.
Should anyone be allowed to own a pet regardless of their income? Should a veterinarian, who is running a business, be obligated to take care of a pet if the owner cannot afford care? Should the owner of that pet be forced to relinquish that pet if services are rendered for free? Are we in a better place today then we were 20 years ago? Your questions and comments below.