I recently wrote a blog here titled “Debunking myths about “rip off” veterinary fees”, and since then, the subject of money has continued to be one of the banes of my life as a vet in practice.
My aim in life is to do a job that I enjoy, and to be paid a reasonable salary: for most people, that just means that you go to work, do your stuff, and come home at the end of each day. For vets, it’s different: every day, as part of our job, we need to ask people to give us money. Most of us would be delighted if this discomfitting task was taken away from us, but unfortunately, it’s an unavoidable part of our job description.
One recent case provided a good example of the type of daily dilemma that faces vets. An elderly terrier, Sam, had a small benign tumour on his flank. He was fourteen years of age, and his owner had been hoping that we might be able to leave the tumour alone: it’d be better to avoid a general anaesthetic unless it was absolutely necessary. When the tumour began to ooze blood, and Sam began to lick it a lot, we couldn’t leave it any longer so he was booked in for surgery. When booking the operation, I mentioned to his owner that it would be wise to take the opportunity to clean up his teeth, which were caked in tartar. And I gave a detailed estimate of the expected costs.
We took all the usual precautions to ensure Sam’s safety. He had a detailed clinical examination and pre-anaesthetic blood tests to ensure that he had no underlying illnesses that could make an anaesthetic risky. An intravenous line was set up to give him continual fluids during the procedure and to give us instant access to a vein if any emergency treatment became necessary. And a vet nurse was designated to hold his paw and to monitor him for every second of his time under anaesthesia, from induction until he was sitting up at the end.
Everything went well: the tumour shelled out quickly and easily, and a line of sutures closed the wound. I carried out a thorough descale and polish of his teeth, as planned. But it was then that the dilemma arose: beneath the tartar covering his teeth, it turned out that two of his molar teeth had large diseased areas. The gum margins had recessed, exposing large parts of the tooth roots. One of the teeth had serious infection, causing the tooth to be loose: it was easily removed. The other molar tooth was more complicated: one root was seriously diseased, but the other two roots were healthy. The tooth needed to be extracted, but it would be a tedious, time consuming surgical extraction, taking over half an hour, and requiring follow up x-rays to ensure that it had been done properly. This would involve an extra cost to the owner of well over £100. I had already given an estimate, and I didn’t feel that I could go ahead with this without permission.
While Sam was still anaesthetised, I asked a nurse to phone his owner to explain the situation. There was no answer on the home line, and the mobile number wasn’t working. What should I do now?
If I went ahead, I’d be carrying out unauthorised work on someone’s pet. If there were any unexpected complications, the owner could hold me liable. And as for the extra cost? Could the owner justifiably refuse to pay?
The safest legal approach would be to make a note of what needed to be done, and then to inform Sam’s owner that he needed a follow up anaesthetic in a few weeks, during which we’d tackle his dental issues. But I knew that it would be far safer for Sam to have the entire procedure completed during this first anaesthetic, and I knew that his owner would be unlikely to agree to pay for a second anaesthetic on top of this first one. So Sam’s dental issues would probably not be treated, and he would suffer as a consequence.
I made an “on the hoof” decision to go ahead with the dental procedure. It took even longer than I had anticipated, and I had to take a series of x-rays rather than just one. By the end, I was happy that Sam had been given the best treatment, but I was nervous about the owner’s response. Would she think that I had done this just as a way of extracting more money from her? What if she genuinely couldn’t afford more than the estimate that I had given her?
I felt so uncomfortable about the situation that I gave a significant discount on the extra work that I had done. Effectively, I ended up working my lunch hour for nothing because I felt so awkward about it.
But what else could I have done? In the interest of the dog, I could not have left painful, diseased teeth untreated.
What would pet owners feel if the vet presented them with a situation like this? Should you pay the full amount of justifiable extra work if it is unauthorised? Do you trust your vet? Or do you feel that we are working more for our own interests than for the benefit of your pet?