Smart Shopping In Veterinary Medicine: A Cautionary Tale

Patty Khuly
Saving Money at the VetDo the math (and some research) before assuming you're getting
a good deal.

Here’s a great question for those of you who don’t happen to have pet insurance [yet]:

Let’s say your young dog suddenly starts limping after a long day at the beach. You see your veterinarian and he tells you she’s got X disease, which requires surgery for best results. So he sends you to a specialist, who offers you an expensive surgical solution with the possibility that some pricey rehabilitation work will be necessary. You make the appointment for the following week, albeit reluctantly, since you’re unsure you can afford the $3,100 price tag she’s quoted you (for the surgery alone!).

That night you happen to have dinner with a co-worker and you regale her with stories of your recent canine misadventures and the unhappy condition of your soon-to-be-depleted bank account. She suggests an alternative: “You’ve gotta see my vet. He did the same surgery on my dog for only $1,000!” Financially and psychologically assuaged, you head home and count the many hundred dollar bills you’ll save as you fall gently to sleep.

The very next day you make an appointment to see your co-worker’s vet. He says he sees plenty of these cases, reassures you that they uniformly do well without any follow-up rehab, and offers you the $1,000 surgery option you expected. It’s a no-brainer! You leave your dog and off you go.

What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. Your trusted veterinarian referred you to the first, more expensive specialist. A co-worker recommended the second. There’s a disparity in authority levels here.
  2. The expensive vet is a board certified specialist in surgery. The second is a generalist with no additional credentials. Who do you think is more experienced?
  3. The specialist wants to charge you $3,100 for the surgery to repair the issue but offers caveats and describes the possible need for follow-up care. The other guy says $1,000 is all it’ll take. What’s more credible?
  4. Why do you think there’s a difference in price? Did you stop to ask (or even think!) what the extra $2,100 was buying you?

This scenario is all too familiar to me. It’s one several of my clients have described… when things eventually went wrong and their pets ended up back on my doorstep, typically in need of the specialist’s care once again. To be fair, I’m sure it’s gone well for some of those who chose Vet #2, but the odds I’ve observed have never seemed favorable to bargain shoppers.

In one nearly identical case, my client chose the inexpensive vet a "friend" had recommended and the dog never recovered well. Three months later his dog limped still worse on the same leg, which he was told was a “new” problem unrelated to the first… and, of course, that it would cost another $1,000 to repair. But when it was eventually seen by the same specialist he’d seen before, he was told it was the same problem –– with some extra complications from having been surgically attended to improperly. And guess what? $3,100 later it was fixed. At least he got lucky and the dog needed no extra rehab.

So what’s the take-home of this too-common cautionary tale? Several points, I think:

  1. Select a primary care veterinarian wisely and properly weight his or her recommendations.
  2. If you get a recommendation for a different vet than your regular vet recommended, call your vet and get an opinion on it. We’re okay with that. We usually know who’s-who in our community and we’re willing to offer you some guidance. In fact, if money’s the issue, we might have additional money-saving ideas for you. Or we might recommend another, less expensive surgeon.
  3. Ask! If you get two different prices that are so vastly different, why wouldn’t you ask why? Feel free to call your regular veterinarian if you don’t feel like asking the specialist or Vet #2.
  4. Think! I mean, really… how could you be so silly as to assume you’d get the same thing for less than a third of the price?
  5. Pet insurance pretty much nips the issue of questionable cost disparities in the bud. After all, why wouldn’t you see the board-certified specialist if you’re going to be reimbursed for the lion’s share of your expenses?

Sure, you’re reading this on a pet insurance company’s community site, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use your brain yet again to suss out the honest truth of scenarios like this one.

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