Discussing veterinary costs with pet owners | VetCheck

Discussing the cost of veterinary care

Recent studies have shown that cost is one of the most significant barriers to receiving veterinary services with 34% of pet owners claiming veterinary care is always higher than expected.

The financial discussion of veterinary care is a challenging one. The goal is to demonstrate the value of the services and clinical benefits to the pet owner, while minimising financial distress for that particular client. Perceived value is so individualised and therefore an assessment must be based on the patient's needs, client’s goals and preferences.

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If the veterinarian's recommendations are not communicated effectively it can result in poor acceptance of the treatment plan.

The consequences of poor treatment plan acceptance:

  • Lower quality of life
  • Delayed or missed care
  • Increased risk of negative health outcomes

Barriers to treatment

There are many reasons for why pet owners do not follow through with the vet's recommendations.

Perceptions of need

80% of clients do not follow through with the veterinarian's recommendations due to confusion. Client education is extremely important in ensuring the client fully understands the reasons for the recommendations.

For example

  • A dental under general anaesthesia will help remove bacteria and plaque below the gumline to prevent further disease
  • 12 monthly heartworm prevention will ensure the pet does not develop deadly heartworm disease
  • Annual vaccination will help prevent deadly viruses.

The goal is to make sure your clients have all the information they need to make an informed decision and prevent them from seeking incorrect information elsewhere.

Financial concerns

It is estimated that only 20% of clients do not follow through with the veteterinarian's recommendations due to costs. These clients often compare the costs of veterinary care with those of human health costs that can be subsidised. These clients should be educated on the reasons for your recommendations as well offered information about alternative payment options and pet insurance.

Ease of access to vet Some clients do not seek veterinary care due to the lack of ease of travel, the stress related to the vet visit for both the pet owner and pet or due to communication barriers e.g. foreign languages. These clients often seek treatment too late and or unknowingly allow their pet to suffer, just to avoid the vet visit. It is important to recognise these barriers and offer assistance to make their life easier e.g. pet ambulances, home visits, translators and pet education offered in their native language.

Factors that impact the costs of services

There are many factors that will impact the costs of veterinary services and add to the challenge of providing an accurate estimate.

These include the:

  • Client’s financial means
  • Total health care costs
  • Duration of illness
  • Predictability of illness

To help reduce the unknowns, it is important to advise the client of the potential duration of treatment, negative outcomes, and where additional costs may be charged.

Barriers to discussing costs in detail

Discussing costs is often left to the last few seconds of a consultation or left to the veterinary nurse or technician.

Barriers that prevent veterinary teams from discussing costs in detail:

  • Many veterinary services don't come with a set price and must be tailored to the individual pet.
  • It’s not always known whether the insurance will cover the costs
  • Financial discussions can be time-consuming
  • Teams lack the knowledge of cheaper services available
  • Pet owners are embarrassed to mention financial concerns as they think they will receive lower quality care

How to talk about costs

Firstly, never lead with money. The client wants to know that you care about them and their pet. Take time to ask after the pet owner’s concerns. Asking for deposits or emergency fees gives the client the impression that the practice is driven by a money.

Demonstrate that you are their advocate, helping them to make the right decisions for their pet’s healthcare. 90% of clients want to know about all the health care options for their pets, regardless of cost. Discussing all treatment options also covers you from clients claiming that they were never offered a particular treatment such as a referral to a specialist. Never make assumptions about a client’s financial situation.

The goal of pet owner education is to gain informed consent. Take the time out to ensure the client understands the plan ahead and the costs. Deliver the treatment options available, the recommended plan and the benefit of each step for the pet and then always be transparent about the cost of care. Always provide a copy of the treatment plan and estimate for the client to review in detail at a later time.

RELATED ARTICLE: Automate your client communications through your practice management system

How to itemise your professional services

Consultation
Anaesthesia
Surgery
Support staff services
Hospitalisation
Sample collection fees
Sample processing fees
Diagnostic imaging e.g. radiology and ultrasound
Travel to animal(s) location
Dispensing and injection fees

How to itemise your products Injectables administered or dispensed fees
Non-injectables administered or dispensed fees
Non-prescription items used during treatment or for home care e.g. bandages, dog food, dog toys

How to best utilise your support staff

The veterinary support team play an important role in gauging client understanding, education and giving pet owners an overview of the services recommended. It’s important that nurses and technicians are trained to ask clients the right questions. You won’t know if someone needs help or is confused, unless you ask.

For clients who miss a revisit appointment Do you have any difficulties getting to the vet appointments due to things like pet travel, pet stress levels?
For clients who do not comply with preventatives

Do you have any questions about your pet’s preventative program?

Do you understand the importance of treatment all year round?

For clients who do not comply with medications

Do you have any difficulties medicating the pet?

Do you find medications a financial burden?

For clients who do not comply with treatment

What are your thoughts on the treatment plan for [pet’s name]?

Does it represent a significant financial burden for you?

For clients who have financial concerns How about I talk with the doctor about alternatives and see if there are any less expensive alternatives?

When treatment is declined

When treatment is declined, always offer options to the client. This is a way of working with them to achieve the best outcomes for the pet under the circumstances that present. If the pet owner isn’t happy, don’t assume that it is a financial issue. The pet owner may be confused and concerned for their pet. Using statements such as “I want to make sure you are getting the best treatment possible and that you can afford the treatment. We can work together to find the best options for [pet’s name]", will help you demonstrate empathy for their concern.

For services or treatments where clients have declined, follow up with a phone call, email reminder or further education e.g. importance of dental care. 38% of pet owners would return for an examination or procedure if directed by the vet and the practice followed up.

When the reason for declining treatment is a financial one, use statements such as “the veterinarian has examined your pet and has recommended this treatment plan to relieve your pet’s existing discomfort and prevent the condition from getting worse. I understand you weren’t expecting these costs. Let’s review the treatment plan and review alternatives.”

Methods of cost reduction

  • Insurance coverage
  • Switching to less expensive prescription medications
  • Changing or decreasing the number of tests
  • Decreasing the number of revisits and following up by a nurse phone call
  • Changing dosage or frequency of treatment
  • Providing free pharmaceutical samples

How to overcome objections to the cost of veterinary care

Many clients don’t realize that a veterinary hospital must offer the “complete” suite of services including radiology, laboratory services, pharmacy, surgery and dentistry and have to maintain the equipment and staff to perform these services. Veterinary profits often go back into the business e.g. team training, team wage increased, equipment upgrades, client engagement systems.

As veterinary services do not qualify for Government subsidisation as with human healthcare, pet health insurance should be discussed with clients in case of an emergency.

When clients attempt to compare your prices to another, it is important to explain how pricing can differ so greatly. Veterinary prices cannot be compared as practices have different services, products and standards of care. For example, one practice may offer 30 minute consultations and use fear-free techniques and others may offer 10 minute appointments. Dental prices may vary greatly as some vet practices will offer patient radiographs, pre-anaesthetic bloods to all patients, detailed charting and pain relief. Not every pet owner will be right for your practice, so it is important to be transparent about your offering and deliver accordingly.

RELATED ARTICLE: Guide to managing difficult clients

References

  • 2003 AAHA compliance study
  • 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study conducted by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, Brakke Consulting, and Bayer Animal Health. Accessed Dec. 26, 2013.
  • Ackermann, L. (2007). Blackwell's Five-Minute Veterinary Practice Management Consult, Blackwell Publishing, Ames.
  • Boedker C., V. R., Meagher K., Cogin J., Mouritsen J., and Runnalls J. M. (2011). Leadership,
    Culture and Management Practices of High Performing Workplaces in Australia: The High
    Performing Workplaces Index. University of New South Wales, Australian School of Business,
    Kensington.