You can educate pet owners about the value of veterinary care all day long, but if you are not offering flexible options for payment, they will continue to stay away because the cost burden is too great.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the importance of effectively communicating to pet owners the value of veterinary services. Helping pet owners understand the value and benefit of veterinary care, it is believed, will motivate them to visit their vet more often. It is also thought to be a way to increase pet owners’ willingness to pay for veterinary services.
While this makes absolute sense – no one is going to seek out, or pay for, services that they undervalue – it doesn’t go far enough. Value is only one piece of the equation when it comes to encouraging pet owners to take their animal to the vet. Trying to sell pet owners on value, without simultaneously providing them with flexible ways to pay for that value, is like, well…herding cats. You’re just not going to get most pet owners to buy in.
It’s a well-established fact that in recent years, veterinary visits have been declining. Some in the profession place partial blame on “Dr. Google,” who is always ready and willing to dispense free veterinary advice – although the quality of that advice is questionable at best. Others think the reason for fewer visits is because pet owners aren’t sufficiently aware of the importance of routine preventive care for their pets. The solution, they say, is to educate pet owners, so they understand why regular vet care is essential. Unfortunately, even though survey after survey indicates that pet owners are most concerned about the cost of care, ways to address this are rarely part of the discussion about how to bring them back to the vet clinic.
I truly believe that for too long, the role that money plays in declining vet visits has been underestimated. The most recent data (available from the Federal Reserve, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Brookings Institution, etc – see sources cited below) shows the financial fragility of most U.S. households. Declining savings rates, inability to fund an unexpected emergency of just $400, difficulty obtaining credit (and this isn’t just a problem for low-income households), and the fact that a significant number of Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck (again, not just a low-income problem), are defining elements of the current financial landscape.
The veterinary profession must be more willing to meet pet owners where they are financially. The human healthcare sector is realizing this as well, due to the effects of the Affordable Care Act and resulting high-deductible healthcare plans (HDHPs) that have shifted a significant amount of the out-of-pocket cost burden to the patient, who must now self-pay. Consequently, many hospitals across the nation are putting “patient-centered” payment options in place, in an effort to be proactive with collecting payments.
Veterinarians would do well to take a serious look at how human healthcare is coping with rising out-of-pocket costs. You can educate about value all day long, but if you are not offering clients creative options for paying, they will continue to stay away because the cost burden is too great.
When emergency veterinary care saved my dog’s life a few years ago, I certainly appreciated the value of the services received. I was deeply grateful to the critical care team whose knowledge, expertise and compassion contributed to a successful outcome. But I still didn’t have $4,000 readily available on the spot. Did I want to pay? Absolutely. Was I offered a way to pay that seemed commensurate with the compassion that was offered during my dog’s hospitalization? No.
The predominant model for accepting payment (in full and up front), which is the final act capping off a client’s veterinary experience, can quickly destroy all the goodwill that was earned by compassionate, expert medical care when there is a perception that the hospital is inflexible about payment – especially when the pet owner is facing a large bill. That loss of goodwill then becomes the defining element of the whole experience for the pet owner, and can overshadow any feelings of gratitude and appreciation they have for a job well done by the veterinary team. Which the team deserves, and then doesn’t get.
Our family recently had to take one of our dogs to the emergency clinic (again) after she ingested parts of a tennis ball and required surgery. I had some time alone with one of the veterinary nurses who said to me, “the only thing you see about us [the hospital] when you read reviews is, ‘they’re all about the money. They don’t care about pets.’ And it really hurts — I work 16 hours a day, 6 days a week because I love this. I don’t do it for the money – none of us do. We go above and beyond for our patients. But all the clients see is how much it costs, and how unfair it seems that we don’t offer payment options that most clients qualify for. So in the end, it’s almost like what we do for their pets doesn’t matter.”
There is a huge emotional toll exacted on both sides when flexible payment options aren’t available. Educating about value is extremely important. But helping pet owners find ways to finance that value – and finance it in a way that is reasonable and attainable for “average” people – is equally, if not more, important – even urgent. And not just for pet owners, but for vet teams too.
Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015: U.S. Federal Reserve, 2016. p. 22
Financially Fragile Households: Evidence and Implications. Lusardi, Schneider, et al. The Brookings Institution, 2011.
Survey of American Family Finances: The Pew Charitable Trusts. March, 2015.]
How Do Families Cope with Financial Shocks: The Role of Emergency Savings in Family Financial Security: The Pew Charitable Trusts. October, 2015.
Reversing the Decline in Veterinary Care Utilization: Progress Made, Challenges Remain: White paper. American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) & Partners for Healthy Pets. March, 2014.
Revenue Cycle Management as return on investment. DiChiara, Jacqueline. RevCycleIntelligence: April, 2015