Understanding Specialists in Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Patty Khuly

Veterinary Specialists

Unless you’re really new to the world of pets or happen to live in a rural locale, you’re probably familiar with the concept of specialists in veterinary medicine. In fact, most of you have at some time or another considered seeking one out.

Maybe your veterinarian recommended you see a specialist for one reason or another. Or perhaps you landed at the animal ER in the dead of night, where you were told your pet might not survive unless you made the trip to the nearest veterinary school where specialists were on call 24/7 to handle the direst emergencies (like yours).

Nowadays, almost everyone knows about veterinary specialty care, even if they haven’t had the bad luck to have to use one. But it wasn’t always like that.

Over the past twenty years, the veterinary profession has observed an explosion in the number of veterinarians heading into three- and four-year residency programs –– usually following a one-year internship program that commences immediately upon veterinary school graduation. An estimated 40-50% of veterinary students now compete for these elite postgraduate positions, which is up from less than 10% less than two decades ago.

What does this mean? More education for the best students our veterinary schools graduate means more veterinarians offering unprecedented skills in cardiology, neurology, ophthalmology, surgery, internal medicine, dermatology, anesthesiology, radiology, behavior medicine and more. We’ve never enjoyed a more expert, dedicated, and well-educated set of veterinarians in the history of the world.

No longer is your general practice veterinarian expected to offer all the services your pets need in the style of James Herriot and other veterinarians of lore. In fact, it’s gotten so that veterinarians who fail to mention the services of specialists when it comes to non-routine veterinary matters can find themselves in hot water if they don’t offer their clients an informed choice regarding their pets’ care.

Which is undeniably a good thing. Whether you choose Door #1 (your regular vet) or Door #2 (the specialist), you deserve to know that you have a choice in your pet’s care. Meanwhile, your pet gets the option of access to higher quality medicine previously available only in veterinary school settings. That is… if you can afford it.

It’s true; specialty care is expensive. These high-end, multi-doctor hospitals typically charge two to three times what your regular veterinarian would charge for the same services. It sounds crazy but, to be fair, they also offer much more than your regular vet ever could. Consider: Round-the-clock critical care, certified veterinary technicians, CT scans, MRIs, radiation therapy, and nuclear medicine (among other menu items formerly labeled, “for humans only”).

Trouble is, the proliferation of specialty services has changed the economics of veterinary medicine so much that it’s no longer always so clear when a pet owner should see an expert. When is a general practitioner not good enough? When does a pet’s condition demand the mad skills of a specialist?

These are tougher questions than you might expect. That’s because generalists and specialists often vie for the same exact patients. In an economy in which many veterinarians are feeling a tad squeezed for income, every patient counts. And the line between what a specialist can do vs. what a generalist can do isn’t always so clear-cut.

While our leading professional organizations have issued guidelines for when veterinarians should refer to specialists (reference the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Animal Hospital Association), they’re fuzzy on the exact circumstances in which a veterinarian should recognize his or her limitations and offer the services of an expert.

In the end, it’s still up to each individual veterinarian to decide when to let a pet owner know their pet would be in better hands with a specialist. Failing that, it’s up to pet owners to be educated enough to ask for a referral when their pets are facing non-routine surgeries, difficult diagnoses, and complex problems. Sometimes, speaking up –– uncomfortable though it may be –– is the only way to receive the best possible care for your pets.

So where does that leave pet owners who don’t automatically know when it’s in their pet’s best interest to see a specialist? Stay tuned for my next post on this subject for my top ten reasons for referring to specialists.

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