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Reflecting on Ruth's weekend of vet bashing

Posted in Guest Blogger @ Mar 5th 2014 - By Dr Belinda Parsons
Dr Belinda The Vet

Well the dust has settled and I thought it was time to reflect on Ruth’s weekend of vet bashing.

I don’t know why I was surprised to read an article whinging about the cost of vets. It’s something that I deal with on a weekly basis in the veterinary clinic. I think the thing that shocked me most was how ignorant she was and how freely the newspaper published her nonsense. She was so distrusting of us as a veterinary community that she thought we had all conspired to charge clients for unnecessary dental procedures. Or did she really…? If she was truly the daughter of a veterinarian she would have known the outcry that an article like hers would cause. Did she have a more selfish motive that was to create a name for herself and sell newspapers? Did she hope that Today Tonight would JUMP at the chance to set up us vets and BAM do a sting and “expose us over servicing and overcharging…”

Living up to most journalist stereotypes she wasn’t going to let the truth get in the way of a good story. I personally tried contacting her a few times but had no response. I’m not surprised, none of the newspapers I contacted or even the AVA returned my emails. The media release by the AVA was eerily similar to various parts of my blog post though… I’m glad I’m not a current member of the AVA, or maybe if I was they would have replied to my email?

What can we learn from this whole experience?

All of us vets need to take responsibility for communicating clearly with pet owners. In my experience communication is key. The best vets will always fall short when they fail to communicate with clients, and the best communicators will often have the strongest client followings regardless of the quality of work they provide.

We are in the time of social media and Dr Google.

We cannot afford to assume the client that they will not search the internet. I personally assume my clients have already done some research or if I’m diagnosing a condition I assume they will be going home to jump straight onto Google. I try to pre-empt this by telling them what to look out for. For example, if I suspect that a young dog has a histiocytoma, I warn them that if they search google and find information about histosarcomas that that is a separate condition. Don’t panic and don’t think that this histiocytoma is the same.

Business owners and managers need to be able to clearly explain to their staff the costs of running a veterinary hospital and how the fee structure has been developed. Do they know that you have discounted desexing and prophylactic dental procedures to encourage people to perform them? We need to train our staff on the best ways to discuss money with clients. Never just throw a number out there and wait for it to settle. Chances are it will settle in a steaming pile of shock!

I make a point of printing out the estimate and going through step by step with the owner what is included in the cost of the estimate. I sympathise with them when they say the cost is expensive – after all, I know that veterinary care is expensive. Yes, this takes extra time, but on the whole it will save time and headaches in the long run. My question to you is do you want your clients to be relatively happy with doing a procedure and understanding the cost or have them create an uproar when they are signing the consent form or when they call up to book the procedure in or worse when they are standing in the full waiting room refusing to pay the bill for the procedure you’ve already performed on their pet. If you don’t provide and explain an estimate then I wouldn’t be surprised if your clients were feeling cornered into doing a procedure as soon as they get a wiff of the bill.

If they can’t afford the bill then I discuss other options with them. Yes, I always offer gold standard medicine, but reality is that not all clients can afford this, so then we start a priority list. Sometimes they will give me an indication of what they can afford so then I work out what is the most effective way to spend their money. I explain the risks associated with this new treatment regime and if we all agree then we move on. I found this approach works well most of the time. It is a rarity that I can’t find a happy medium between pet owners and pet requirement when it comes to cost.

Listening to the client is so valuable.

I cannot emphasise this enough. I listen to what they want to achieve and what their primary concern is. If I can make them feel like we are addressing their concerns then they will hopefully leave feeling satisfied. If they aren’t comprehending the seriousness of the situation then it is your job to explain that to them in a way in which they can understand.

I am so very grateful for the experiences from my first job as a new graduate veterinarian. I worked in a lower socioeconomic area of Sydney. This taught me an immense amount. It taught me never to judge a book by its cover. I know for a fact that some of my clients would go without just so that they could have their pets treated. I felt like I had the best clients and the worst clients in Sydney. Whilst I would see cases of neglect and cruelty and many preventable diseases, the things that stand out in my mind were the clients who cared so very much for their pets and the incredible sacrifices they would make for their much loved companions. This job taught me to be creative. Most clients at this clinic couldn’t afford best practice so I had to learn to make compromises and justify which tests were going to be most valuable. This is a skill that I’ve taken into all of my subsequent jobs.

When clients question the bill I am more than happy to explain the costs to them. However, when they start piling on the guilt, abusing me and telling me I’m only in it for the money and how could I be so cruel to let their dog die or offer euthanasia then I’m not going to waste much of my time or breath with these people. I will make sure the patient is getting treated (be it with me or elsewhere) but they are not the clients that I want to encourage to come through the door of my veterinary practice. They are also the ones who are going to abuse all of my staff every time they are presented with a bill. Not only are they going to create more drama than they are worth, but I value my staff too much to force them to put up with that crap.

We need to catch them while their pets are still young.

I cannot encourage pet insurance strongly enough. I let clients know the vet fees they could be in for if their pet requires a visit to the emergency centre or a knee reconstruction. We offer all puppies and kittens one month’s free pet insurance when they come in for a wellness check or vaccination. We’re trying to encourage good habits early. We need to emphasise the importance of preventative medicine and that postponing treatment will often cost you more in the long run.

So long and the short of it. Ruth, thank you for writing your article, it allowed me to write a response and unite vets, vet nurses and animal industry workers. It highlighted our need to communicate clearly with our clientele and train our staff to feel comfortable discussing cost with clients. Whilst it is unlikely that my response has reached the same audience as Ruth’s, I think I blew plenty of holes in her argument. I can accept our industry having a reputation as being expensive but what I’m not willing to embrace is her claims that we are not trustworthy and that we are trading on the naivety of our clientele. 

This blog post has also been published on Dr Belinda The Vet Blog

Dr Belinda is an exclusively small animal veterinarian and hospital director of a Sydney-based veterinary clinic, with 15 years’ experience in the veterinary industry. She is a University of Sydney graduate and a certified veterinary acupuncturist. She is a passionate animal advocate and feels the best way to improve the quality of lives of her patients is through educating their owners. She juggles vet work, with her 16 year old fur child (Jack, rescue Maltese Terrier X), two daughters (age 2 and 4), studies towards a Master in Veterinary Medicine, her website/blog and her various social media accounts. 

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