People have very different relationships with their pets than with their cars, which is why a consumer magazine’s advice of a few years ago to focus on price when selecting a veterinarian doesn’t make much sense. After all, if a tree falls on your car and destroys it, and an insurance company picks up the tab for a new one, what are you out except some inconvenience?
That’s not the case with our pets. We love them not just as generic and interchangeable furry accessories, but as members of our family and beloved companions. We no more want mediocre health care for them than we do for ourselves.
The problem is, we rarely know how to judge whether a veterinarian is good, bad, or great at what she or he does. We fall back on things like cost, location, and bedside manner because we don’t know what else to consider. We also rely on word of mouth from friends and family who themselves don’t know how to evaluate a veterinarian’s ability to practice medicine.
Of course cost and location matter. It’s just that those are follow-up questions to the basic issue of a veterinarian’s medical skills. But how do you evaluate how well your veterinarian, or a new veterinarian you are considering, practices medicine? There’s no single formula or litmus test, but these five tips should get you as close to an answer as possible without actually going to veterinary school yourself:
1. Consideration for your Pet
Just because your pet likes your vet, and vice versa, doesn’t mean the vet is good at practicing medicine. The reverse is true, however: It’s impossible to practice great veterinary medicine without having both knowledge and concern for a pet’s emotional as well as physical well-being.
A stressed-out pet will have elevated heart and respiratory rates. His blood pressure will be high. Some of his blood values will be skewed. He may need higher doses of drugs for sedation or anesthesia. And it will be difficult for the veterinarian to examine the pet if he’s frightened, struggling, or showing fear-based aggression.
Frightened pets result in bad medicine, so look for a veterinarian who provides compassionate, individualized care that minimizes or eradicates stress and anxiety for your pet.
It would be nice if there was a hard and fast rule about how long a veterinarian should be in practice before being considered a great vet. The truth is, many mediocre or even poor vets have been in practice a long time, while some newer practitioners are more up-to-date and informed about medicine than their senior colleagues.
But the longer a good vet has been practicing, the more likely she is to become a great vet. Not only that, but she’ll have seen pets with the same symptoms as yours many times, and had the opportunity to see how other animals respond to different treatments. She’s also had years or decades to take continuing education and refine her communications skills. Experience really can make the difference.
3. Keeping Up
It doesn’t matter how long your vet has been practicing if he doesn't keep up with changes in veterinary medicine. That's why the best veterinarians continue to learn and educate themselves throughout their careers. They belong to professional groups such as regional or national veterinary associations, or the Veterinary Information Network (VIN). They attend veterinary conferences. They take online courses. They are familiar with new research published in the veterinary literature.
If you already have a veterinarian, the next time you’re there, try telling him you read an article about the use of computers in veterinary medicine, and you're wondering if he belongs to VIN. Ask if he's ever been to a veterinary conference, and what it was like. Ask if there are any new studies about a health problem your pet has, and see what he says.(?)
4. Communication Skills
A great veterinarian needs great communications skills. She needs to be able to tactfully steer you away from information she doesn't need while skillfully eliciting the information she does need to diagnose and treat your pets.
She also needs to be able to give you the information you need to make medical decisions about your pets in a way that makes sense to you. She needs to be able to give you understandable instructions on what you need to do to care for your pet at home, and how to determine a need for follow-up care.
In addition, she needs to be comfortable enough with your pet to give her a complete examination and perform any necessary procedures without causing her stress, fear, or discomfort.
5. Referral to Specialists
While the best veterinarians know a great deal, they also know what they don't know. Most importantly, they know how to find someone who does. A great veterinarian will have forged good working relationships with local specialists, and won't hesitate to refer you to more specialized care when appropriate. That good relationship will ensure that there's open communication between you, the specialist, and your pet's primary care provider — which will in turn ensure the best possible care for your pet.
Whether you're happy with your current veterinarian or looking for someone new, keep your focus on obtaining the best veterinary medicine you can find and afford; save the consumer magazines for tips on buying new appliances.