Balancing the scales in medicine

I am becoming increasingly convinced the communication gap between veterinarians and clients is the number one problem we’ve failed to solve. We’re just not on the same page a lot of the time, it seems, and it makes me sad. I can’t read a single article online without coming across “veterinarians are money grubbing pigs that suck” (true blog title) and someone else saying “if you can’t afford x/y/z/q you shouldn’t have gotten a pet, jerk.” I feel as though this is perhaps a bit extreme, but it’s what happens when we don’t work together to identify our goals.

Common Fallacies of Bad Client Interactions

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(In just as many cases, the vet on the left is an associate up to his or her ears in student debt and just trying to make it through the day without getting yelled at one more time, and the client on the right is a stressed out single parent who just spent a grand fixing her car.)

Much of this angst comes from the pervasive assumption that in all cases we will do everything we can medically, no matter what, which was fine a while back when “everything” meant “antibiotics” but as veterinary medicine has advanced, has come to mean “MRI, spinal tap, radiation.”

This assumption, of course, carries over from human medicine: if you’ve got the insurance, you’re getting the treatment. Everyone’s happy, right? Right?

Not so much. Satisfaction with a medical course of action relies on multiple factors.

Sometimes getting to “Everyone Happy” (Square B) is impossible. D’s not so bad either, but A and C are no-fly zones.

Human Medicine Satisfaction

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I would argue that satisfaction with outcomes is directly correlated to the balance between the amount of treatment pursued, and its benefit.

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So really, the goal here isn’t to push everyone towards the far extremes of treatment; it’s about getting to that center line of balance. In human medicine this change is slowly creaking along with things like hospice care, which moves people from C to D in low treatment benefit situations, and increased access to insurance coverage, which moves you from A to B in high benefit situations. With Mom, we were squarely in the D category, and while we’re not HAPPY, it’s a hell of a lot better than if we had treated her to death.

Make sense?

So how does this apply to veterinary medicine? It’s similar, except we tend to find ourselves walking a line most strongly related to finances.

The Veterinary Experience

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There’s a whole lot of people in square C these days, who spent more than they really had on treatments they weren’t sure they wanted, because they felt like they had to, and when things go downhill as they often do with very ill pets, people can end up really, really disillusioned with the profession.

Now, since we have no ability to magically divine which people are up for specialty treatment and which people are not, we always offer all the options to clients- as we should. There are people who spend thousands, lose their pet, and are still ok with the outcome- but they were also very clear on the risks and made an informed decision. Many clients, it seems, feel as if they are not.

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So what do we do to improve outcomes? In my experience, the best way to move the dial from A to B is pet insurance, at least for emergency situations. There are few situations more likely to prompt a Facebook mob than a pet who died a preventable death because the owner couldn’t afford treatment and the ER vet wouldn’t do the treatment for free- nor should they. Owners need to shoulder some of the responsibility here of financial preparation, and if they refuse to take even basic steps to be prepared, maybe they really are a crappy client.

And conversely, moving the dial from C to D involves good veterinary communication, and a willingness to understand that lots of factors go into the decision about whether or not to seek treatment. If a veterinarian talks a senior on a fixed income into a kidney transplant for a 15 year old cat in renal failure, after she expressed concern about paying her rent for the month and her own upcoming surgery- maybe they really are a money grubbing vet.

But I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Clients and vets both have work to do here. And I believe with all of my heart that the better we get about empowering clients to make informed decisions, the more that will carry over into human medicine- which is a wonderful thing.

I realize this is a vastly oversimplified explanation of some really complicated issues, but hey, we have to start somewhere. Whatever it is we’re doing now sure doesn’t seem to be working too well.

Pawcurious: With Veterinarian and Author Dr. V

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