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MDs As Clients: Vet’s Worst Nightmare

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If there’s one discrete class of client that gives veterinarians pause more than any other it’s the human physician.

This may sound profoundly unfair, yet nine of 10 surveyed vets agree they’re among the most difficult pet owners to handle.

As far back as veterinary school, our professors drilled us on issues we should beware should our animal patients come with an on-the-side, at-home clinician in tow. Making medical decisions for their pets in our stead was their specialty, we were told.

Fifteen years of experience in this arena has not yet proved my profs wrong. Human docs are far more likely to bring on the stress than any other kind of client. But I’ll give them this: Those who don’t come with a cloud over their heads tend to join my A-plus crowd of clients. You just never know which it’ll be.

So what’s up with that, you ask? Here’s the biggest issue:

Physicians, often feeling themselves capable of treating diarrhea, pain, fevers or simple infections, have a reputation for giving inappropriate drugs or administering human-style treatments based on off-the-mark presumptive diagnoses.

Most of the time these actions are benign or merely wasteful. But on more than one occasion I’ve also seen big, bad, human-oriented medical decisions lead directly to an animal’s death.

You doubt?

Tragic Anecdote 1

A cat’s lethargy prompted her pediatrician owner to assume his cat had a fever. Baby Tylenol twice daily for three days led to an irreversible blood disorder called methemoglobinemia. She died less than 24 hours after her owner brought her in for the “fever” he was still trying to treat with acetaminophen. (Her body temperature was actually 5 degrees too low when she arrived, but who’s counting?)

Tragic Anecdote 2

An ill-informed physician gave her pain-suffering dog Advil for several days before realizing that while her dog’s limp was better, diarrhea and a sluggish appetite had taken its place. She then called our hospital to see what could be done for his rapidly devolving gastrointestinal state.

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When we advised her to bring the dog in for examination immediately, she demurred: “It’s just a little loose stool.”

After the dog collapsed during a short walk, the physician finally brought him in … DOA. Following her request for a postmortem examination, it wasn’t too hard to conclude he’d died of blood loss after a stomach ulcer ate through his stomach, or to find this physician tearfully confessing to her free hand with the ibuprofen.

Annoying Anecdote 3

This one’s not so tragic but it led to the “firing” of a client. It happened after the client complained that she shouldn’t have to pay for my veterinary services because her boyfriend the radiologist told her my diagnosis was incorrect.

Those white spots I showed her on the X-ray of her dog’s bladder? They couldn’t possibly be the bladder stones I had said they were, he argued via telephone.

Him to her: “Refuse to pay the bill, honey. You can’t see bladder stones on an X-ray.”

Me to him: “We called them bladder stones in vet school.”

Me to her: “Dump him while you’ve still got a chance, sweetie. He’s an arrogant ass.”

Here’s where physicians would do well to remember the maxim “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” So beware: Cats are not dogs. And humans are not dogs.

On the other side, the veterinarians I know seem far less likely to diagnose and treat themselves. To be sure, some of us do (I’ve heard stories that would curl your toes), but I believe vets tend to have a greater appreciation for the byzantine nature of interspecies differences.

After all, what constitutes a powerhouse drug for a cat might just as easily kill a dog. Been there, done that.

Overall it’s true: Doctors—veterinarians included—can be pains in the backside in almost any environment. Some of us display a deep sense of entitlement for having achieved a degree, status and title that others haven’t.

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Still, we should all agree on one thing: Sticking to the species we were assigned to when we received our license is fundamental unless we’re willing to go back to school and slog it out all over again. And I, for one, am not.

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Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at Dolittler.com.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News

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