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5 Tips to help New Vets decide to Treat or Refer

Posted by Cari Wise on June 9, 2016 at 5:33 AM
Cari Wise
Dr. Cari Wise is a 1999 graduate of the University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine. She completed a Masters degree in Education from Argosy University in 2015. Throughout her career, Dr. Wise has utilized her veterinary education in variety of settings including private and corporate small animal practice, shelter medicine, spay/neuter clinics, veterinary relief services, start-up practice ownership, and veterinary technician education.


As a DVM, the decision to treat a case yourself, or to refer it for outside care can be difficult. There are many factors that can influence the decision. So how do you decide?

Here are five tips to help veterinarians determine when to refer.

1.  Consider Your Ability

As DVMs we all graduate with vast medical knowledge and skills. However, as with all other things in life, we are individually better at some things than we are at others. So, when a veterinary medical or surgical case requires care in an area where you know you are not skilled, consider referral.

2.  Do You Want to Treat the Case

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to. There may be some medical or surgical conditions you just don’t want to manage. Odds are that when it is something you don’t want to do; you won’t do it well. So consider referral. The patient will benefit from better care and your stress level will thank you.

3.  Is Referral Financially Possible for the Owner?

As much as vets hate to discuss money, it does influence the extent to which a patient can be treated. Client communication is key. Third party payment plans could be an option, so clients must know about them. In the end, if referral isn’t possible due to finances, be very honest with your client regarding the care you can and cannot provide at your facility.

4.  Consider the Liability Risk

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Veterinary malpractice cases are an unfortunately reality of the world we live in. It is more important than ever to know your client and to have a well-established, trusting relationship you can depend on when challenging medical situations occur.

Clients must be given all the options, even the option of referral to a boarded specialist for cases you may very well be skilled at handling yourself. It is much more difficult to defend yourself when a case goes sideways if you didn’t make the owner aware of referral treatment options.

5.  Listen to Your Gut

Sometimes it is most helpful to just step back and ask yourself a simple question… If this were my pet, would I treat it myself or refer?  If you don’t feel skilled enough, or confident enough, to treat your own pet with the same challenging medical or surgical condition, then you probably shouldn’t be trying it on someone else’s.

Ultimately, the decision to seek referral care is a client decision. However, as veterinary medical professionals we do have a duty to assure clients have all of the information needed to make an informed decision for their pet.

And remember, referral doesn’t always require transfer of the case to a board-certified specialist. Although that option must also be presented, sometimes the appropriate referral may be to a fellow associate DVM in your practice who has more experience or interest in that particular type of case.

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