Health Care: Why Does my Dog Get Better Health CARE Than Me?

Posted: August 4, 2008 in answers, current events, dogs, health, health care, insurance, Me, my life, question
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My dog’s recent surgery has been eye opening for me in many ways- some of which are totally unexpected.  For example, my experience (well Kane’s too) has led me to create mental parallels between the treatment Kane and I received from the NC State vet school (and vets in general) with the treatment I received from “people doctors” when I encountered health difficulties.

Note: My own past health problems include and appendectomy and severe (and undiagnosed) intestinal problem that caused me to lose almost 35 pounds in about 30 or so days- this was due to a combination of throwing up everything I ate and pretty much not eating a single thing except for a few small handfuls of cheerios occasionally.  During these two significant events in my life I dealt with about 7 doctors, a surgeon, and two hospitals.

The only reason I thought about this is because there is a stark difference in the way I was treated by people doctors and the way Kane was treated by his doctors at the vet school.

The Animal Hospital Experience

Ever since I first brought Kane to the NC State vet school I have been treated with respect, kindness, genuine concern, and patience. Doctors (including Kane’s neurologist who is one of the leading doggy neurologists in the nation) took the time to call me daily to update me on Kane’s condition.  After Kane’s surgery I had a half hour phone conversation with his surgeon where she explained the surgery in detail and promised to walk me through the surgery when we could meet in person.  She kept her word (via a resident since she was pulled into an emergency surgery) and I spent about a half hour looking at my Kane’s x-rays and his MRI- with the resident explaining in detail what I was seeing, what was wrong, and what a normal dog’s spinal column would look like.

In addition, both times we visited Kane, the doctors wheeled our dog into a visiting room and spent at least twenty of our forty-fifty minute visit conversing with us about his care and about our family in general.  It was an interesting thing to see, this dog with a foot long scar up his back laying in the middle of a room with a little girl draped over him and myself (or my wife) talking with two to three doctors.  And when it came time to discharge Kane the doctor went over his discharge papers with me and made sure I knew to have her paged when he came back in so she could stop by and check up on us.  Moreover, when I got the bill it was about $4, 700 or so dollars.  How much would it cost to get the same surgery Kane had for a person?  Is the human version of the surgery that much more difficult?   Even putting that aside, I looked to the small items on the bill, the x-rays and surgical tools, and their cost was all within what I might expect.

My Own (Human Doctor) Experience

Since we closed with costs, why not begin with them here.  Back in 2001 I was charged about $14,000 for a basic appendectomy- $10,000 in hospitalization fees and $4,000 for the appendectomy.  I am willing for the sake of argument to ignore the hospitalization fee since the vet school hospital can place their patients in kennels/run.  However, I am having trouble seeing how a rather common procedure like an appendectomy cost about four times what my dog’s spinal surgery cost.  I would think it takes greater skill to play around near the spinal cord than to pull out an appendix- although both, no doubt, do require a tremendous amount of skill. Moreover, I only saw my doctor the morning of surgery and after surgery for all of 10 minutes.  Consequently, a nurse was pretty much my only contact.

Several years later when I developed what would be an undiagnosed (even after three months and four doctors) stomach/intestinal condition I learned the joy of bouncing between doctors who couldn’t remember my name or barely cared to put an ounce of effort into diagnosing me.  When I went for expensive contract tests  and Cat Scans (covered by my insurance) I would ask the doctor administering the test (I had three) the results only to have them tell me, “Sorry, I can only tell your doctor the results. He will tell you.”   I think that after drinking eight cups of nasty chalky milk like concoction I would have at least been given an answer by the expert whose job it was to read the test(s).  Nope.

And when I went hope and waited for the results I went days without a call from the doctor when it was apparent that the doctor who administered the test new the result almost immediately.  It was almost always my duty (thanks to their lack of initiative) to call and request the results.  Sometimes, I would have to call several times and demand to know the results- lest I be transferred around four or five times and be forced to leave a message to which no one would respond.   And NEVER did the doctor himself get on the phone to talk with me, only secretaries and nurses, but never the doctor.

Moreover, the few times I did talk to doctors (and these were strictly exam room conversations) it was short, curt, and lacking in almost anything friendly and respectful.  I received incorrect diagnoses, but never explanations.  I received short answers, but never a simple sign of patience on their part with my lack of medical knowledge [Note: I am better now thanks to House, M.D. and Scrubs].  I received stern and inquisitive looks, but never any sign of actual concern.

The BIG Question(s)

So why the differences?  Why the difference in cost, concern, and care?

Here are a few of my guesses, and please feel free to disagree with me and comment about your own answers to this question (feel free to also provide example from your own life of dealing with human and animal doctors).

(1) He Who Pays is Treated Better.  Not many dogs carry doggy insurance and vets aren’t obliged (like people doctors in many hospitals) to treat clients who can’t pay.  As a result, vets know that the person who brought in the animal is the person paying the bill in 99% of cases.  While your doctor might ignore your request for an explanation of a procedure, would he ignore your HMO or Medicare if they asked a similar question?  Could the problem be that since your doctor only feels obligated to explain treatment decisions to third party payers that they don’t feel like possibly having to explain themselves twice?  Also, since most folks who walk into a vets office can’t afford to pay as much to fix their cat or dog as they would a person, this might serve to keep costs down.  Well, at least until the federal government implement a MediBARK program (and MediPURR lest they appear anti-feline) to pay for veterinary care.

(2) He is as Unto God.   Could it be that people doctors have an overinflated view of themselves?  Sure back surgery on Fido might be just as tricky as back surgery on Billy Bob Thornton, but if Fido dies it isn’t quite as serious as if Billy Bob Thornton dies (no Bad Santa 2).  Perhaps the stress of this leads to a more calloused view or at least leads to more of a fear of connecting with patients.  Moreover, perhaps the power of controlling the life or death of another person does corrupt as absolutely as one might think? I don’t know.  What do you think?

(3) Fewer Lawsuits.  Unless your dog is a purebred their is little value in suing a vet.  You don’t win pain and suffering if your vet is negligent and you don’t get compensation for all the hugs, frolicking on the beach, and duck hunting you could have done with your dog.  Perhaps this leads to both a decline in the cost of service AND a greater willingness to be open with patients who they DON’T see as a potential lawsuit in the making.

(4) Is the Motivation Money? Are people doctors more likely to decide to become doctors because of money?  And even though vets certainly don’t have a low median income, are they more likely to choose their profession based on a love of their clients- animals?  Moreover, let us assume that both enter their profession with an equal amount of enthusiasm for saving lives and helping people.  Is it easier to stay in love with the animals than the people- since we all know it is much easier to find a human jerk than his/her animal equivalent.

What do you guys/gals think? veterinarians

  1. Teresa says:

    I think there’s something to be said for the love. Pet vets probably work for the love…although farm vets don’t seem to be quite so loving from what I’ve seen.

    Ive also observed that advanced care in vetranary medicine just hasnt been all that common until recently. (the number of dogs/cats I saw “put down” with a shell to the back of the head is staggering, and I’m only 10 or so years older than you, and I think in rural areas it still happens more often than humane doctor-assisted peticide – whereas advanced care for humans is quite common, and becoming more so as we live longer and are prone to more ailments like cancer that have to do with the body malfunctioning.

    I think that they increadible demand for advanced care for humans (and a growing shortage of health care professionals) has lead to increased “efficiency – in otherwords, an assembly-line approach to health care. People and some of their conditions/symptoms fall through the cracks.

    One doctor addresses one widget in the body, and another addresses another widget, and supposedly all of that information is supposed to come together with your primary doctor.

    If one person drops the ball along the way, the whole process gets screwed, and everyone is expected to handle volume, so there is a greater chance that any one person will get dropped.

    About you not getting your results from the radiologist…the radiologist is trained to interpret the tests, and my know the results of the test…but he is not a generalist, and therefor, even though he knows the results of you test, he might not know anything about other conditions you might have, and he probably does not know anything about your medical history or the larger situation. It would proabably be inappropriate for him to comment onyou condition given that he only has one small slice of the information. Giving incomplete information can lead to all sorts of trouble.

    Some hospitals have Hospitalists which track all aspects of a case and make sure that things run smoothly. We experienced this when my husband had emergency gall bladder surgery, and the effect was wonderful. (the ER experience was another, different experience…but that’s another topic for another time.) With the hospitalist acting as the central hub of information, we were able to be updated by just about anyone who happened to come in for any reason.

    But I think the main reason that vets seem so much more relaxed is that they are less concerned about covering their butts. Treating animals is less adversarial than treating humans.

    The stakes of failing to save a dog are just so much less than the stakes of failing to save a human. Thus, the liability is so much less, thus, the carreer-ended potential is less. I think it is easier to connect with a patient, feel compassion for them, invest yourself personally in their recovery, and generallyfocus on the treatment of their case when you are not worried about crossing your “Ts’ an dotting your “I’s” so you don’t get sued.

    Oh, one more thing, I think pets are better patients than people. I know a lady who works as a dialisis technician, and you wouldn’t believe how many of the patients she has treated DEMAND that she donate a kidney for them. When people’s lives are threatened, and they are desperate to extend their lives, they often understandably make inappropriate demands on those around them, and make it necessary to put up a wall…because it is hard for any compassionate person to continue to function in that environment without emotional armor.

  2. Thanks for the awesome comment Teresa.

    I think you would be shocked by the number of dogs who came in to the hospital for all kinds of major care toward the end of life. In the few brief hours I spent in the waiting room on several occasions I met mutts and labs with lymphoma, golden retrievers with full hip replacements, and three other cases of spinal surgery.

    And come to think of it the waiting room environment at the animal hospital is so much better. First of all, just having the dogs around makes the atmosphere so much easier. Part of that is due to the fact that even very sick dogs have such upbeat attitudes. Moreover, you don’t have to feel bad about asking people what is wrong with their dogs and almost all of them don’t mind talking about it. Just so much different from a human hospital waiting room.

  3. Tiffany says:

    Awww, makes me sad because I hate going to the vet when I am accompanying my doggy. I hate seeing the other animals that are in pain, it honestly tears me up.

  4. When my oldest son was 3years old he started complaining about stomach pain. I thought at first it was something he ate, took care of him and sent him to bed. A few days later he complained that it hurt when he went potty. We visited the doctors office a total of 10 times and the emergency room 3 times, in a five week period, only to be told that he had a urinary track infection or a yeast infection. On one of out doctor visits my husband and I had to tell the doctor we weren’t leaving until they gave us a referral to a urologist. The doctor was snotty with us and told us he didn’t think we would need it, but he would give it to us anyway. When we finally got him into the urologist he was lethargic, pale as a ghost, wouldn’t eat or drink, and would scream from the pains that he had in his private areas (screams that I hope no other parent ever hears). They did blood tests, an ultra sound, and several other tests on him. They found a mass on his bladder that they thought was cancer, but when the doctor went in to do an exploratory surgery on him they found nothing. So they referred him to a pediatric surgeon and she found the problem. For some reason, my son had stomach tissue that had broken away from the stomach and gone down into his intestines and into the bladder. The tissue attached itself to the intestine and the bladder, so he had to have part of his intestine removed and his bladder scraped. He is a happy healthy 11 year old now, but I honestly thought we were going to lose him…and we would have had I not been persistent with all the doctors who thought I was just a hysterical mother. Here is a link to the post I wrote about it, but I think I gave you more details than I wrote in the story.

  5. Thanks for sharing Spatulahandle. Sounds a lot like my experience except that luckily mine cleared up on its own as mysteriously as it showed up.

  6. krislinatin says:

    hey its 10/14, how is Kane doing?

  7. chelseablues says:

    Hi I live in England and find that vets in general tend to be more compassioante in nature. They are, most of the time more down to earth , how many vets do you who strut their stuff around in a power suit ? they tend to dress more casually and believe that they are on the same level as everyone else not God. This probably has something to do with the training they have to do. Vets will have to learn to deal all types of animals and from talking to dogs- usually in a high pitch squeal to knowing how to calm a horse down . In the very nature of what they do – who they deal with they are required to have patience. Animals have a sixth sense and usually have a better sense of the person before them than a humans .
    As I live in England I do not have to pay for health care as it is free on the NHS but I do have private medical insurance for both myself and my dog. The diffreence between the NHS and the private sector is vast . On the NHS there are huge waiting lists. My father had to wait for around 8 months before he could have an incisional hernia repair on the NHS . We decided then to pay for thr op privately- within two weeks my father had seen a specialist and had the operation . When my dog required surgery he was seen to within a week with the vets giving me regualr checks and walking me through the procedure . On the NHS on the other hand the doctors are condescending and hardly ever speak to you in person – instead you get to know their secretaries…
    the differnce in attitude from vets and Dr’s who are paid privately can attritubed to fianaciall considerations . Private Doctors and vets have to be nice to their patients as they would finacially rewarded by their continual atendance whereas public health doctors irrelvant of what they do have a set salary each year
    Vet bills also tend to vary from surgery to surgery . The vet I go to now (I had change once i moved) charge me £75+ cost of medications whereas my the average cost of my previous vet with the cost of meds is around £50

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