Hot Topic Reporting season
Hot Topic Reporting season
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On vets, specialists and debt collectors – a rave!

Brian Edwards on the cost of living with pets.
Brian Edwards talks about vets on NBR Radio and on demand on MyNBR Radio.

Fri, 09 Oct 2015

On Monday, on Jim Mora’s Afternoons panel, I launched a full frontal assault on what I consider the avarice of two professions – vets and medical specialists.

My ire, in the case of the veterinary profession, was occasioned by the cost of treatment for our two cats, Max and Felix, amounting not to hundreds but to thousands of dollars in this year alone and to tens of thousands over their lifetime.

I should add that the care and treatment which the cats received was invariably excellent. I have no complaint on that score.

Nor have I any complaint about the care and treatment I’ve received from medical specialists, which is fortunate since I’m a confirmed and fully paid-up hypochondriac.

As with the vets, it’s less their fees which anger me than  their debt-collector mentality to payment.

This was exemplified in a consent form which I  recently had to sign before seeing a specialist. What seemed to me an inappropriate and offensive amount of space on the form was devoted to the perils of non-payment of the bill. When I remarked on this during the subsequent consultation, the specialist, to my surprise, entirely agreed. He didn’t like the form either and he hadn’t drawn it up. The professional body representing his specialist field had.  

I firmly believe that the labourer is worthy of his hire. We should all pay our debts. But there’s a significant difference between buying something you know the price of but can’t afford and have no intention of paying for, and taking your cat or dog to the vet or yourself to a specialist for treatment. Where health is concerned, whether yours or your animals’, neither the outcome nor the cost of that treatment can be definitively predicted. You may be in for a much larger bill than you anticipated.

The consent forms which both vets and specialists defend as a responsible warning to their clients of the cost of treatment and their obligation to meet that cost, actually invite the client to gamble on the duration and outcome of the treatment and to weigh that outcome against their ability to pay.

People are of course more important than pets, but the options presented by vets to pet owners can often be stark. When our cat Felix was hit by a car more than a year ago and ended up with a broken leg, the choice we were offered was between surgery to repair the leg (most expensive), amputation (less expensive), putting Felix down (if we couldn’t afford either of the other options).

On another occasion I came home to find Felix’s brother Max trapped under the sliding garage door. I picked him up and, without thinking, drove him to our regular vet. Max was OK but in the rush I’d forgotten to bring my wallet and didn’t have any money with me to pay the bill. I said I’d drop the money in later that afternoon but was distracted by another emergency. Early the next morning I received a call from the clinic demanding immediate payment. The sum was a measly $100. As I handed the cash over I made no secret of my anger to the vet. As I was leaving the receptionist whispered to me. “We’re under instruction to always get the money before people leave. It’s really embarrassing.” The owner of the practice later apologised.

This debt-collector mentality seems to me to be at odds with the essentially caring nature of both professions and, in the case of the medical profession, with the Hippocratic Oath.

Well, my radio rave produced an angry response from one vet who wrote to Jim Mora who forwarded the email to me. Here’s part of that email:

 I have worked for some years as a vet in small animal clinics around the world & payment for services &goods received has always been a sticking point. We are not subsidised for the work we do and we do (try to) run as a business. We are in the caring profession but we are not a charity. We have an obligation to give first aid treatment, whether that be pain relief or to carry out euthanasia on a sick pet. We are not obliged to do work for free. Some practices have a clause in their consent form such as that mentioned by Mr Edwards to protect themselves from those people who run up $1000s of work & then scarper. It also stimulates the conversation about payment so that the vet can set up a payment plan with the owner if they need that.

I thought this was a pretty fair response from a vet who’d apparently been stiffed by quite a few clients. I ended my reply: “I suggest you consider setting up practice here. You’re precisely the sort of vet the area desperately needs.”

My reply produced a further email including:

The greater issue here is the perception that vets are a caring profession and, as such, shouldn’t demand payment for their work. Pets are a luxury item and being able to cover their on-going costs should be a consideration when buying them. One wouldn’t buy a Porsche and take it to the garage expecting them to do work on it out of charity. I think there is a middle ground between us threatening legal action and being taken for mugs and unfortunately we often end up covering the costs of treatment for animals where the owners cannot pay….. We aren’t business-people and we do struggle with that side of the job. On behalf of us all, I apologise.

There was of course no need to apologise. If I have a reservation about this entirely reasonable response, it’s that there’s usually a world of difference between how most people feel about their pets and how they feel about the things they buy. Most people love their pets, are distraught when they get sick and grieve when they die. And pets play a significant role in mental health, particularly of the elderly.

But if it’s true that “pets are a luxury item” then it must also be true only the well-off can afford to have pets. One possible resolution to this “sticking point” might be for veterinary clinics to operate a sliding scale of fees based on an estimate of the client’s ability to pay. I’ll call that “The Socialist Solution” – cumbersome but just!

Yes, yes, yes, I hear  you! “Can’t afford to take your pet to the vet? Should have got pet insurance. Can’t afford so see a specialist? Should have got medical insurance.”

Yeah right! Only thing that’s wrong with that scenario is that pet and medical insurance can also only be afforded by the well-to-do. Catch 22.

So my Afternoons correspondent is probably right – pets are a luxury item. But I think every student vet should leave university with a clear understanding of the intense and meaningful relationship between most pet owners and their animals and that no-one should enter this profession with the primary aim of making a stack of money, unless they’re proposing to set up practice in Beverly Hills.

I really liked the specialist I went to see a week or so back. We spent ten minutes on what was wrong with me, ten minutes on his bloody insensitive debt-collecting form and the rest of the time having a laugh. This is what normally happens when I consult a specialist. Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. But it doesn’t come cheap.

Felix, who had all his shots, has just come down with cat ‘flu. Max is starting to look a bit seedy too. Look for me in the Three Lamps area of Ponsonby. I’ll be playing my harmonica and carrying a cardboard sign that reads: “Wife and 2 Burmese to support.”

Think I’m getting a cold.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards posts at Brian Edwards Media.

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On vets, specialists and debt collectors – a rave!