Imagine the following scenario:
You have just started your first job as a vet, working at a two-doctor general practice in a suburban area. You’ve been on the job for about three weeks and everything is going smoothly… so smoothly, in fact, that your boss leaves you to “hold down the fort” for a few hours while he goes to a doctor’s appointment. You feel honored, but slightly terrified.
Sure enough, not even half an hour after the owner walks out the door, a new client comes rushing in with a dog that has been hit by a car. You perform a brief triage exam and the dog looks relatively stable, but you know that he needs an IV catheter, fluids, pain meds, radiographs, and monitoring for the next several hours. As soon as you begin talking to the client about your exam findings and plan, she starts to cry. “I only have $75. I won’t have any more money until I get paid on the first of the month. Can you still save him?!”
Uh oh. You were prepared for a medical conversation, but vet school didn’t prepare you for this!
How will you treat this dog for only $75? How can you help this client come up with more money? Your first instinct is to pass this conversation off to another team member, but you’re standing in front of the client and she’s pleading for answers… walking away and handing her off to someone else doesn’t seem like a good choice.
Know Your Options
While financial conversations are often handled by receptionists, vet techs, and vet assistants, it’s inevitable that you will occasionally find yourself discussing finances with an owner. Therefore, it’s important that you understand your practice’s payment options.
These options may include some or all of the following:
- In-House Financing
Some practices allow established clients to make weekly or monthly payments on a large, unexpected bill. While this isn’t common, it never hurts to ask your employer. Ask before an emergency arises, so you are prepared.
CareCredit is a healthcare credit card accepted by most veterinary practices. In most practices, this is the go-to recommendation for clients that ask to make payments on their pets’s care. Clients can apply online or over the phone, receiving an answer within minutes. Interest-free financing is often available, for a period of up to two years.
Scratchpay is a new program similar to CareCredit. The key difference is that Scratchpay is not a credit card; it is a one-time, short-term loan. Some practices offer both CareCredit and Scratchpay, to increase the likelihood that a client will qualify for at least one financing program.
Some owners are able to successfully fund their pet’s veterinary care with donations from friends and family or through the use of GoFundMe. Although it can take a while to raise money, clients who are able to afford an initial deposit may be able to raise the rest of the funds for their pet’s treatment.
- Non-Profit Foundations
Some non-profit foundations help with emergency veterinary bills. The Brown Dog Foundation, for example, focuses on “bridging the gap between the cost of medical care and saving the family pet.” Local rescue groups may also have funds available to help owners in need. Unlike CareCredit, however, non-profits often take several days to provide approval. However, if a client can come up with a deposit to begin care, a non-profit group may help with the costs of continuing care.
Don’t Take It Personally
At some point, every veterinarian hears these painful words: “If you really loved animals, you’d treat him for free.” It stung the first time I heard it, but over time it becomes less hurtful. Trust me on that one.
My typical response to a client guilt trip is “I’m just here to provide you with options; it’s up to you to decide what you want to do.” When clients are struggling, I try to provide a lot of options. First is Plan A. If that doesn’t work, I discuss payment options. If that’s still a no-go, we go to Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc. My fundamental responsibility is to offer as many medically-sound options as I can think of. It’s up to the client to determine which of those options they are willing to authorize.
When you see pets for their first puppy or kitten visit, or any other new patient visit, it’s a good opportunity to educate clients about the potential costs associated with veterinary emergencies. Many people genuinely have no idea how expensive a veterinary emergency can be. If clients purchase pet insurance or begin a pet emergency savings account at that time, they are less likely to encounter stressful financial crises later in their pet’s life.