Why Veterinarians Self-Treat...But Shouldn't

Relying on ourselves to treat work-related injuries is not only stupid, for veterinarians, it’s—technically—also malpractice of a sort.


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Many veterinarians will confess to eschewing physicians, even in the case of some serious injuries. Yes, it’s an uncomfortable concept.Many among us will confess we often eschew physicians even in the case of some serious injuries.

Got scratched or bitten this week? Kicked recently? Hurt your back hauling pets? Wrangling a calf? It’s inevitable, right? But never fear; the answer to what ails us is easily found in a pill, patch, spray, pomade, ointment or injection ... on your hospital’s shelves, of course.

Many among us will confess we often eschew physicians even in the case of some serious injuries. Yes, it’s an uncomfortable concept: Veterinarians are way willing to script-up whenever the need arises. Plenty among us find the answer to our ills within our own hospital’s pharmacy—or via prescription pad. That can prove problematic.

Self-Serve Medicine

A 1988 study (Landercasper et al.) found that 77 percent of respondents to a survey reported self-treatment of injuries (most commonly involving sutures and antibiotics) while a 2000 study (Jeyaretnam & Jones) confirmed that high incidence.

But I’ve witnessed or accepted confessions pertaining to more than a round of Clavamox for a bite wound or a few doses of clindamycin to get that abscess under control in advance of a dental visit. X-rays for orthopedic injuries, advanced dental ministrations, antidepressant prescriptions and even—shocker!—Viagra scripts are all part of some veterinary practitioners’ extracurricular repertoires.

So what’s up with that?

Viagra’s shockingly lower cost via veterinary compounding pharmacies helps explain why so many veterinarians circumvent the human medical professions.

The financial incentives to do so—everything from workers’ comp dings, lost work hours, pricey drugs, supplies and services (not to mention all those insurance headaches!)—means we’re more likely to want to take matters into our own hands.

Add to that the fact that many of us are underinsured (or not insured!) and often elect bare-bones comp policies (the bane of the small businessperson) and it’s no wonder we elect to dispense with the standard medical formalities.

Not only is practicing medicine outside the scope of our duties a not-so-effective means of getting healthcare for ourselves, it’s also technically illegal. Moreover, it’s convincingly argued that self-treatment on simple maladies is a “gateway drug” to drug abuse along more impressive lines.

Confession Time

Yet veterinarians continue to avail themselves of ”little extras” every day. This, despite the potential legal and regulatory repercussions to our licenses.

So here’s where I’ll ‘fess up and come clean: While on two occasions I went straight to the ER (after a volley of dog bites to the head and after a very deep cat bite wound in the fleshy part of my thumb), the rest of my typically “minor” bites get treated by ... moi.

I’ve been known to quickly slap a pressure bandage on a bleeding wound and refuse to let anyone look. “It’s just a flesh wound,” I’ll say, quoting Monty Python glibly in an attention-deflecting ploy. Yet any bite that breaks the skin is a legal and regulatory issue. Yet we flout the protocol—rabies, OSHA, workers’ comp, etc. be damned.

Which is hypocritical, of course. Whereas veterinary staff members are always sent straight to the ER for an immediate look-see, most of us seem more likely to occult our own injuries from prying managerial eyes and take matters into our own hands. Losing work is just not fun or financially feasible for too many of us. And who wants to let all the staff in on a bite wound blunder or some other stupid vet trick that just bit us in the butt?

It’s no surprise, then, that the most recent study along these lines, based on a bite-wound-specific survey from 2009, meshes reasonably well with what we already know.

Of the 481 respondents, only 12.7 percent saw a doc while 26.5 percent considered themselves self-treated. Yet a total of 51.1 percent respondents treated themselves with antibiotics after bites (I call that self-treatment but apparently not all do). Complications were seen in 5.1 percent of veterinarians who self-treated and sought no emergency care and only in 1.2 percent with no self-treatment who also received emergency care.

The problem with this study, though confidential and anonymous, is the true complication rate. Veterinarians are less likely to stress over poor or delayed healing and are unlikely to consider their own treatment unsuccessful. My take, and the study’s authors’, was that the complication rate in those who self-treated was highly underreported.

Nonetheless, the study made its point, one that should come as no surprise to those among us way too willing to self-treat:

The documented disparity in complications between the self-treated and ER-treated veterinarians is significant. It highlights the need for all of us—not just veterinarians—to seek out appropriate, professional medical care for ourselves. Relying on ourselves to treat work-related injuries is not only stupid, for veterinarians, it’s—technically—also malpractice of a sort.

Veterinarian, heal thyself, indeed. 

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