Animal Health Matters: For animal health care, it's a one-stop shop

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

I’m writing this column from a hospital. A “regular” hospital, not an animal hospital.

A sudden health issue has turned my mom’s life upside down, and I’m in the middle of helping her through it. For the past month, I’ve had a front-row seat to our modern health care system, from emergency rooms to a hospital to a rehab center and back to the hospital again.

All along the way there have been examinations, lab tests, diagnoses and treatment plans. To me, these are familiar -- maybe even comfortable – processes, as they’re the same things I did in veterinary practice, albeit with a different level of technology and patients who can’t talk.

But it’s the differences, not the similarities, between how our health care system takes care of people and how veterinarians take care of animals that really strikes me.

In veterinary practice, when a sick dog came to my exam room, I went through the same basic diagnostic and treatment steps that my human health care colleagues use, with the goal of figuring out the problem and making the patient better.

Through it all, I was the patient’s doctor: the “go to” person from the minute the dog hit my exam table to the final result, whether it left the clinic wagging its tail or in a body bag. I did the exam, read the X-rays, placed the IV, gave the treatments, checked on the patient and determined when a trip home was possible. I’d have help along the way, but I was always the point person. All through the process, the dog’s owner never had to guess who to call with questions or concerns.

Contrast this with my mom’s current experience. She has gotten great care from all of the professionals who have worked with her: paramedics, emergency room doctors, hospitalists, specialists in things like neurology and internal medicine, therapists, nurses and patient care assistants. They have all helped her get to a much better state of health than when she first hit the hospital doors.

Of all the providers who have worked with Mom, however, there hasn’t been that “go to” person - someone who broadly understands her past and current situation, who can put the whole team’s observations into the big picture and advocate for the best path forward. We’ve relied heavily on the great nurses to thread together information during her various stays, but it often comes down to me or other family members asking the right questions and offering observations.

The sheer efficiency of modern health care has produced a disjointedness that can leave patients and their families feeling out of the loop. Specialization and efficiency mean doctors and other professionals are extremely good at their jobs but often only get to work with a little slice of a patient’s story. If it’s not in the electronic patient record for each provider to find, I often end up repeating the same thing to multiple people multiple times a day. Staffing issues over the past year or so haven’t helped this, with more patients needing each provider’s time.

Except for large teaching or referral hospitals, this specialization hasn’t hit veterinary medicine. Our profession is still one where relationships among doctors, clients and patients span from a puppy’s first shots to her arthritis medicine, and through the ups and downs of livestock operations through the years and the generations.

It’s those relationships that make veterinary medicine a uniquely special profession, and that's what I miss the most about not practicing. That’s not to say it’s always sunshine and rainbows. Because of the close nature of these relationships, veterinarians – as much or more than other professionals – are prone to take their failures personally. For some, that stress can be debilitating.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched these health care providers – for animal health as well as people – thin. Workforce issues, surges in patient numbers and increased expectations from clients and patients are affecting the provision of human and animal health care alike. Beyond those challenges, these professionals have also – sadly and inexplicably -- found themselves the subject of anger and nastiness.

So give these health care professionals – whether they work on animals or people – a break. They may work in vastly different kinds of systems, but at their core they all have a great sense of care for their individual patients.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.