Choosing A Veterinarian

Aren’t all veterinarians trained and licensed the same? If they give good service and have convenient hours, isn’t that enough? Sorry. We veterinarians are not all created equal.

I’m a firm believer in excellent, healthy relationships. I also believe that if you want a specific type of service and you are willing to pay for it, you ought to get it. Toward this end I will provide you with a list of qualifications and considerations that good veterinarians satisfy. Then I will help you evaluate the “short list”.

Having said all that I will not be so presumptuous as to assume that you want the same things in a veterinarian as I think best. While you love your pets you may not want advanced dental treatments or endoscopic biopsy techniques. Ultrasound and electrocardiography may not seem important enough to you to warrant the investment of your hard-earned paycheck. And that’s OK. We live in a free market economy and I believe that you have a legitimate choice.

Objective Criteria
To find the right doctor and hospital I suggest that you do it in two steps. The first of these will be a list of objective criteria that you can quickly and easily research. The second will require a bit of face to face contact with the contestants who reach the finals. Sort of like an interview with a few of the Miss America Finalists. So whip out the Yellow Pages and flip to V. Look for the following:

  1. The AAHA logo. If you’re like most pet owners you’ve never heard of this. It stands for American Animal Hospital Association. This is a lot more than a club. There is nothing mandatory about being a member hospital. While membership is open to all animal hospitals, only those adhering to stringent voluntary requirements and inspections are allowed to display the AAHA logo. It is not cheap. But veterinarians who are serious about quality invest the money and energy to pass. These are the good guys. Only 15% of animal hospitals qualify.
  2. More than one doctor in the practice. At least three is best. Why? Because, as Confucius said, “None of us is as smart as all of us”. The best doctors don’t need to be asked to get a second opinion for their clients. Anything that is not clear-cut warrants a consultation at a good hospital like Adobe. Buy one opinion, get two more free.
  3. Not closed for lunch. What the heck does that mean? Closed for lunch. So if your pet gets hit by a car at 12:15 they need to finish their pie a la mode first? I don’t think so. You need a veterinarian whenever your pet does.
  4. Extended hours. A hospital that’s open 24 hours is great but few are. Many are open until 7 pm or later as well as every day of the week. Very few pet health problems have to be treated right now. But there are a lot that had better be seen some time today. Besides, the convenience of evening and weekend appointments is, well, a convenience.
  5. By appointment only. What is this? We’ll see your pet on our terms? Take a number. Get in line. You think your pet is sick enough to need our help? Come in now. A word of advice: If you want them to be ready to help, better call ahead. Most hospitals don’t have a clairvoyant on staff.
  6. Services you want. If the ad says spays, neuters, and vaccinations and that’s about it, you won’t be happy. Wellness only-type clinics will refer anything else to a general practice. I recommend looking for a broad range of services such as cancer treatment, dental, illness and injury. Our ad lists behavior management too. Try to get most of what you may need under one roof.
  7. Proximity to home. This is by far the most common criteria used by folks searching for a new veterinarian. It makes sense in case of emergency but don’t rank convenience over quality.

The Warm and Fuzzies
OK, have you found one or two that pass the above that are located in the same hemisphere as your home? Now for the warm and fuzzy part: If you’re going to entrust the health of your beloved pet to this stranger you’ll need to get beyond the stranger thing. The process of meeting and sizing up the doctor, staff, and the facility will tell you volumes about how people and pet-friendly they are. To that goal do these things:

  1. Call the clinic and tell the nice lady (sorry but it usually is a lady) that you are looking for a veterinary hospital and that you’d like to stop by and meet one of the doctors and take a tour of the facility. Ask her when would be a good time. Tell her that you will be bringing your pet-it’s important to him/her too.
  2. Show up a few minutes early and look around the reception room. Is it clean or does it stink? Presentation counts. Do the folks at the desk wear clean uniforms? Do they smile? Are they polite? Every one of these things translates directly into how attuned to detail the whole operation is. Those little things matter.
  3. Observe the manner of the staff regarding your request. Do they act like it’s the goofiest thing anyone has ever asked-to meet the folks and take a tour? If so I would feign acute abdominal distress and exit gracefully.
  4. Do they say hello to your pet? I hope they like pets and that they’re not afraid to show it.
  5. So they’re genuinely nice people, happy to have you there. They want you to feel comfortable. That’s what you want. Ask a few questions. What happens to severely sick or injured pets? Is there a policy for quick handling of urgent cases? The providers of customer service will tell you much more than the doctor. That’s because most doctors know how they want their support staff to behave. But not all of us know how to motivate people to do it. So ask at the desk and you’ll learn what truly does happen.
  6. If you’re waiting for a long time (more than 20 minutes) does anyone get back to you to explain the delay? Do they offer you a drink?
  7. When the doctor invites you into the exam room does her or she introduce him or herself? Is the doctor rushed? A harried doctor makes more mistakes. A good organization has composed professionals.
  8. Does the doctor say hello to your pet? Friendly is good.
  9. Ask the doctor how he/she handles a case that is outside his/her area of expertise. Wait for the doctor to say that there is a specialist in most cases who will take referrals. If it’s clear that this veterinarian knows his/her limitations you have a winner. Nobody knows it all. There is just way too much to be known for anyone to specialize in everything.
  10. Last ask the good doctor if he/she has an area(s) of special interest or skill. Each of us should have one or a few areas of medicine that really turn us on. If this doctor has nothing in particular that gets his/her juices flowing I would feel underserved.
  11. The tour. Do they show you everything? How about the area where the cages and runs are? Are they spacious and clean or does it look and smell more like the “back room”? The hospital ward should be the most important room. If our greatest priority is the pets who are the sickest then we had better give them the very best. If they’re going to get well they need it to be clean and comfortable.

So the tour is over and the staff seemed glad that you and your pet came. Do they seem like the kind of folks who would help you whenever you had a problem? How about if you called the third or fourth time after you got home from a visit where you were dispensed medication. Maybe you were so flustered that you were still confused about the directions on the bottle. Would they be caring and understanding? If the answers to most of the above is yes then I think you just hit paydirt. Sign up.

A word about professional fees: Please don’t worry about it. Sure, there are rip-offs. I think there is less of this all the time. Pet owners are getting more savvy and veterinarians are increasingly aware of their liability.

Again, it’s hard for me to comment on how the other guys do it. I diagnose first and treat second. I don’t look for ways to save my client’s money by “trying this or that first and if it doesn’t work we’ll figure out what’s really wrong”. My job is to advocate for the pet’s needs right from the start.

As technology and medicine advance so do the costs. Not only do we have increasing equipment needs we must hire and retain skilled and committed staff. None of this comes cheap. Generally you will get what you pay for. Or, as I sometimes say to pet owners trying to do the right thing but also trying to save a buck, “You won’t get what you don’t pay for”. You can’t get the best for less.