How Veterinary Care Access Issues Hurt Us All

Let’s further consider the issue of inequity in veterinary care and how problems in accessing veterinary care hurt us all, including veterinarians. This is important because if they continue to reduce their hours and shifts, quit altogether, or worse, die by suicideaccess for all to veterinary care will only worsen.

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Problems accessing veterinary care

Bash Free Zone

Having written on animal issues and veterinary medicine for over 25 years, I am a huge fan of people working in the veterinary field. All of them. In case you didn’t know, this is NOT the place to belittle, demoralize and demonize members of the veterinary team.

Am I pointing out problems? Yes. Do I think the profession needs some improvements? Yes. Am I worried about the future of the profession? You bet. However, people themselves (for the most part) do not deserve all the blame for how the problems of accessing veterinary care play out in the real lives of people and pets.

And honestly, since the pandemic began, veterinary customer behavior has taken a big dip, which has only made things worse. More than ever, this is causing clients to be fired, meaning they will no longer be able to go to that vet clinic for treatment…never again. Watch this video I made a while ago to learn more about NOT getting fired as a veterinarian client.

So, as we continue to examine the challenges for both veterinary customers and veterinary professionals, let’s all try to do our best, for the good of all, please.

Access statistics to veterinary care

Let’s start by looking at how many pets in US households have more children. About 70% of us have pets at home, but only 30% have children. So, problems accessing veterinary care may affect a larger number of families than you might think. And today it’s not just those on the lowest incomes. The so-called “middle class” also feels severely constrained, as incomes have been stuck since the late 1970s and early 1980s when adjusted for inflation and the like. Few make it financially. What many of us earn simply does NOT keep up with the cost. [Ask me how I know? Look for another post soon about how much our pet insurance premiums went up.]

Problems accessing veterinary care Cause

Harm for veterinary professionals

I recently shared some data on who is not receiving veterinary care. We can easily imagine what this means for pets and the families who love them, but it’s also very damaging to veterinarians:

  • Patients turned away without diagnosis or treatment
  • Patients euthanized for treatable/survivable issues

Michael Blackwell, DVM, MPH, FNAP, Chair of the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition, told me in a recent interview that “Veterinarians are emotionally affected when they have to make these decisions. we were not made not to help. I mean, we signed up to help, right? And so our mental-emotional health is compromised by these circumstances.”

Blackwell further told me: “Veterinary medicine cannot fix what veterinary medicine has not caused.”

In other words, the socio-economic and political issues at stake are complicated and far beyond the control of the vets themselves. Yet they get all the blame, resentment, and hurtful comments.

As a reminder, Blackwell points out that almost no one expects us to pay for our own medical care without the help of insurance or government programs. However, despite the great positive effects pets have on our physical and emotional health, medical care for pets remains almost entirely our own responsibility, even if it means accessing some form of credit…which for many is not possible.

Damage to our physical and mental health

Among the shifts in thinking needed to address problems in accessing veterinary care is the One Health model. Blackwell explains, “Basically, if you want to improve health outcomes for a population of people, you really have to consider the animals in their world and their environment and the environment itself, but their ecosystem, because those three all intersect with people, animals and the ecosystem.”

For example, let’s say an elderly person is forced to give up a beloved pet due to financial constraints due to medical expenses. However, taking away this precious family member leads to loneliness, depression and an expensive medical decline for the person. So many resources and so much money are ultimately going towards that person’s health, when perhaps some of that money would have been better spent on proper veterinary care to keep the pet indoors.

None of our current systems support this.

Also, one of the biggest alarms to sound on this issue is public health. Blackwell says, “Most of the new diseases that have emerged in the last 75 years have been zoonotic.” That is, they jump from animals to humans (usually via the food supply, but still an issue in the broader veterinary community and world …as we recently learned the hard way).

Possible collapse of the veterinary profession as we know it

Veterinary clinic ownership will change dramatically over the next 10 years. And the huge challenges surrounding the financial viability of veterinary practices will play a big part in who (if anyone, honestly) wants to buy or can afford all the practices that are about to be for sale.

When veterinarians and veterinary technicians, especially younger ones, drop out of direct patient care or flee the profession altogether due to the strains, including their own financial burdens from educational debt, then it becomes increasingly difficult for all of us to access the veterinary care we provide our pets require and the level of care we can expect.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, many in the veterinary profession do not make much money for their level of education, expertise and job demands. In fact, many in the veterinary profession technically fall into the ALICE demographic. Honestly, for many of them, if they didn’t get their employee discount on veterinary care for their pets, they couldn’t afford it either.

Reversing the way options are taught and presented

Blackwell also believes that the profession needs to shift back to a general/incremental medicine approach to improve the problems of accessing veterinary care for pets. That’s what vets did before the explosion—both in vet schools and in vet practices.

Rather than jumping straight to “gold standard” options, which make veterinary clients feel like crap when they can’t afford that level of care, Blackwell suggests that veterinary teams rely on their experience and deductive reasoning to help offering smaller steps and more affordable options at first go from there. Theory? Some is better than Nothing.

The challenge of this strategy, however, is that if this isn’t enough to save a pet or make a significant improvement, people will freak out the other way…that not enough has been done.

There are 2 sides of the same coin:

  • They want to do too much and it costs too much.
  • You haven’t done enough and [insert poor outcome here].

This “no win” feeling is not good for any of us, including our pets and the vets who care for them.

We’re in this together, kids.

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