Why are veterinary fees so high?
I’m biased. There, I admitted it. I get angry and hurt when I hear people ranting and raving about the “high cost of veterinary care” and “greedy” veterinarians who are “only in it for the money.”
I’m proud to be veterinarian. We are a caring profession. The intent of the blog is to shed some light on this common misunderstanding and help to regain public trust in the veterinary profession.
First, I will start with some background explaining cost structure and why it is the way it is. I will compare human medicine to veterinary medicine. Then, I will offer solutions (some already are in place) where veterinarians, pet owners and all others involved in the veterinary field can come together with the common goal of getting the best care for their pets at affordable rates.
**Note: I love my physician, have many physician personal friends, and have no problems with the human medical field. Making this comparison allows me to make my points about the relative cost of veterinary medicine.
Here are facts:
Human medicine: 136 accredited medical schools in the USA
Veterinary medicine: 28 accredited vet schools in the USA, 11 in other countries
There is heated competition for admission to a limited number of vet schools. One must be an excellent student and take specific classes for admission to veterinary school in addition to going through a rigorous admission process. Most students complete 4 years undergraduate and an additional 4 years of veterinary school. The same amount of time to be a human physician. In my undergraduate course work, I took classes with many of my friends who are now MDs. Statistically, it would be easier (because of the number of relatively few veterinary schools) to gain admission to medical school then to veterinary school.
**Take home point: Veterinarians intentionally choose their profession when they go through the rigorous admissions requirements.
Human medicine: Average debt upon graduation $160,000.00. Average first year salary for primary care physician $180,000.
Veterinary medicine: Average debt upon graduation $103,000. First year salary for primary care veterinarian $65,000.
**Take home point: Just by looking at debt load and relative compensation, it is clear that veterinarians do not choose this profession to become rich. I will be paying back my student loans (which from vet school alone exceeded $100,000.00) for 30 years. This is a sacrifice I made to live my dream as a veterinarian. I certainly don’t expect my clients to shoulder those costs (which is a common argument I hear which is illogical). I pay my debt load from my salary that I receive from my employer. I live in a modest home in a less than ideal neighborhood and still live paycheck to paycheck (partially from personal decisions my husband and I have made regarding child care) and partially from this debt load which is like a second mortgage.
Human medicine: Hospitals receive funding from outside sources (federal and state funds, endowment funds) to help offset costs of non-paying uninsured and Medicaid patient care. For example, a large hospital in my area where I live received 2.3 million dollars from the state legislature to help offset the cost of Medicaid care one year.
Veterinary medicine: No outside funding. Veterinary hospitals are set up by individual veterinarians. All start up costs, running costs, and overhead expenses are provided by and covered by these individuals. Veterinary practice owners take out business loans and take on a major personal risk. There is no one to bail them out if they are not profitable or if people don’t pay their bills. Bankruptcy and/or significant personal loss are associated with a hospital that is not profitable.
Human medicine: Cost of non-complicated labor, delivery, maternal and infant care for 3 days: $2200.00 out of pocket and with my health care plan I pay 40%. So that means the hospital received in total about $5100.00.
Veterinary medicine: Cost of complicated caesarean (mother in labor for 72 hours with dead, rotting puppies in her uterus) about $1200-$1500 (if the owner selects good care—hospitalization, IV fluids for mom). Veterinarians occasionally offer this service as low as $800.00 to alleviate suffering in pets whose owners had limited financial resources.
Take home point: Similar situation but much worse predicted patient outcome. Cost does not match severity. We use the same drugs, sterile technique, and nursing care as the human hospital. I can only imagine the costs if I had a caesarean.
Human medicine: Digital chest x-ray costs for radiologist to read, insurance pay plus my co pay $250.00
Veterinary medicine: Digital chest x-ray costs for immediate veterinary interpretation and patient restraint (they don’t stand still and inhale when asked). The cost is $80.00.
Take home point: My implication is that veterinary care comparatively is not that expensive when all factors are considered.
BUT, I know that $80.00 plus the cost of other diagnostics in a sick pet quickly adds up. What can be done?
Veterinarians choose this profession for their love for animals and their people. The human-animal bond that we have experienced in our personal lives often is the nidus for making the choice to enter the veterinary profession. All veterinarians I know strongly dislike the daily task where we have to make a decision for our patients based on financial concerns instead of medical need. We would welcome a system (with arms wide open) that would allow us to be able to do more for the patients belonging to those who have financial difficulties.
I did some research. The Humane Society of the US has some great suggestions on their website for alleviating the cost of veterinary care.
Here are my thoughts (some of them reflect what is on the HS website) on what we can do together to make this very difficult situation better:
1. Private individuals or corporations who have extra money can donate to a national fund set up for sick/injured animals for veterinary care. The pet emergency fund is available for this very reason. Please see their website if you would like to donate: http://www.petemergencyfund.org/
2. After creating your own emergency fund create a pet emergency fund, if possible, to help care for your pet when the unexpected occurs. Even when you take great care of your pet, there is still risk for an abscessed tooth or urinary blockage.
3. If you need help with financing because #2 is not yet available, veterinary care credit is a service that allows for funding unexpected pet emergencies and paying them over time. Most clinics I have worked for used to allow owners to finance the unexpected with the hospital but then they stopped for two reasons. Veterinary hospitals can get fined for “lending” to clients since they are not recognized as lending institutions. In addition, too many non-payments of funds for people who promised they were good for their money and that they could be trusted subsequently leads to an unfortunate generalized mistrust. If we don’t know you, and your family won’t lend you money, why would we take on that risk?
4. I’m desperate for other solutions. My day in heaven on Earth would be the day I never have to put a puppy to sleep because the owner couldn’t afford care.
Can you help me think of other ways to make vet care more affordable that are in line with what you now know?