5 things medicine can learn from veterinary care

Over the last few years I’ve had numerous encounters with vets and vet hospitals. Domino, the dog that we had since I was in medical school, was sadly very sick. He was a Jack Russell-Corgi cross, black and white, with the loveliest sweetest nature. He lived till almost 13-years-old, bringing an immense amount of joy to our whole family. Sadly, he passed away last summer. My parents felt a huge gap in their lives and quickly realized that they had to get another dog to replace the loss. Sure enough, soon a new puppy was running around the house. Deeno looks very similar to Domino, and we got him when he was about six-weeks-old. He’s great for my parents and keeps them entertained and exercising. Growing up, we had always had cats at home, but dogs are of course very different in terms of the time and devotion that they require (and also the devotion they give back).

Unfortunately, Deeno was involved in a car accident only a few months after we got him and was rushed to our vet hospital in Uxbridge, England. It seemed like he had suffered a major injury at first, but over the next several weeks with some TLC and regular checkups with our vet, he thankfully made a full recovery and was soon back to his perky self.

So in a short space of time we’ve had more than our fair share of encounters with veterinary care. I have to say that I’m embarrassed sometimes when I observe how veterinary medicine works compared to human medicine. Although my experiences have been on my trips back to England, from what I hear from people I’ve talked to in the United States, the same appears to be true here. Here are 5 of my observations:

1. All the vets I’ve met have a palpable sense of love and caring for animals. Although doctors are among the most dedicated professionals you could ever meet, I’ve found the sense of caring and compassion amongst vets to be at times overwhelming. They really like animals! True, animals are more innocent, and can’t answer back or argue with you — but it’s something to think about in our profession. The same goes for veterinary nurses, who are the unsung heroes of animal hospitals, quietly working in the background to nurse your pet.

2. Keeping their owners updated at all times. When Domino was unwell and had a major operation, we would receive regular phone calls updating us about his progress while he was in hospital. Rarely did we ever have to initiate that call ourselves. The nurses knew how concerned we were and would keep us updated. We would also know exactly what times he was receiving his medications and what times his scans and tests were.

3. Welcoming customer service environment. From the receptionist all the way through to the vet themselves, the whole experience was welcoming and friendly. Never once did we feel like an afterthought or that we weren’t listened to. Some lessons here for human health care?

4. Specialist coordination. Again, when Domino was unwell, our own vet would have to coordinate with the other specialists that he was also seeing. At every visit, he was fully up to date with the latest developments. All of the records and images were either faxed over or emailed to him. He also had easy access to talk directly with the other specialists involved in his care. How many times in human health care do we encounter scenarios involving mixed messages and different doctors not being on the same page?

5. Time spent with each patient. Perhaps the most striking aspect of veterinary care is the time that the vets spent with us and our dog. We never felt rushed or pressured as the vet explained everything to us, went over any scans, or talked us through treatment options. This despite having dozens of pets of all shapes and sizes lined up in the waiting room.

These are just five of my own observations. Perhaps we were lucky having access to such excellent veterinary care, but nevertheless some of the contrasts hit close to home. The other side of the argument is that vets operate in a free market environment that is very different from medicine, and don’t have a lot of the headaches that doctors do — such as medico-legal risk, insurance bureaucracy (although we do have insurance for our dog), and political pressure to reach certain benchmarks.

Vets could counter this by saying that their profession is harder in many ways, because similar to being a pediatrician, emotions are high as owners know that their pets can’t talk for themselves. Vets also care for dozens of different animals with very different anatomies. Without getting into a debate about which profession is harder, veterinary medicine almost certainly has something to teach hospitals and doctors. I couldn’t help thinking how lucky my dog was to be in the hands of such great care when he needed help.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.

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