Updated on January 8, 2011
Reasonable Expectations VIII: Written Cost Estimates
This is the eighth part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through seven can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog.
You’ve just taken your best buddy to see your veterinarian because he’s been vomiting for three days and is now beginning to refuse his food. Your vet performs a thorough physical examination with all normal findings, so she recommends blood tests along with X-rays of your dog’s belly. If these tests don’t provide a diagnosis, she tells you that the next recommended step would be abdominal ultrasound. Of course you want to proceed with this testing because your dog is a beloved family member and you want him to get better, but do you know how much the recommended diagnostics will cost? Will you be charged $300, $800, $1,300? Unless your dog is a “repeat offender” how in the world could you possibly know? Three hundred dollars might be completely within your budget; whereas $1,300 might mean coming up short on your mortgage payment.
Whether you are independently wealthy, barely making ends meet, or somewhere in between, know that it is perfectly reasonable to request a written cost estimate from your veterinarian before services are provided. Why must you be responsible for asking- shouldn’t your vet automatically offer forth a written cost estimate? Much to my chagrin, I must tell you that only the minority of vets voluntarily provide written estimates. This was documented by veterinarian/researcher, Dr. Jason Coe and his colleagues. Their research appeared in 2009 within the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The article titled, “Prevalence and Nature of Cost Discussions During Clinical Appointments in Companion Animal Practice” documented the following:
• Actual cost is addressed in only 29% of veterinary appointments.
• When cost is discussed, 33% of the time it is the client and not the veterinarian who initiates the discussion.
• Talk related to cost information constitutes a mere 4.3% of the total dialogue time.
• Written cost estimates are discussed during 14% of appointments.
• Written cost estimates are actually prepared and delivered to the client in only 8% of appointments.
Dr. Coe’s research certainly supports the notion that veterinarians are squeamish when it comes to discussing fees for their service. I must admit it is certainly one of the least favorite parts of my job. Nonetheless, I consistently provide written cost estimates, particularly if I’ve recommended something other than a single treatment or test, in order to avoid communication snafus and clients who are disgruntled when it comes time to pay their bill.
Why is a written estimate preferable to a verbal estimate? Written estimates require time and focus. Guaranteed such estimates are far more likely to be accurate than those prepared by the vet using mental math while “on the fly”. Additionally written estimates avoid uncomfortable conversations such as, “You told me it would be $100, not $300……..” and, “But you never told me you were going to do that……”. So, please don’t encourage your vet to simply give you a “ballpark estimate” or an estimate “off the top of his or her head.” I avoid providing such guesstimates at all costs (no pun intended). Try as I might, I invariably lowball such estimates because of my innate desire to make the cost for my client as reasonable as possible. And when this happens I end up cutting corners (not a good thing for the patient) and/or having to make uncomfortable phone calls advising clients of added expenses (and I definitely get called into the principal’s office).
It is completely reasonable to receive a written cost estimate before services are provided, but keep in mind, you may need to be the one who initiates this process! With written estimates everybody wins- communication is so much clearer and there are no surprises when it comes time to collect fees. Additionally, a written cost estimate provides an itemization for you of everything that is planned for your pooch. Have you received estimates from your veterinarian? If so have they been delivered verbally or in writing?
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.