When you imagine your first job as a vet tech, you probably envision that you will be spending much of your time providing quality care for your patients. While that is true, to an extent, you will also spend much of your time communicating with the owners of those patients!
An unfortunate reality of vet med is that clients cannot always afford to perform every diagnostic test or treatment recommended by the veterinary team. While emergencies are obviously difficult to plan for and can be difficult to pay for, many clients struggle to even provide basic preventive care to their pets, especially during uncertain economic times. It’s important to have strategies to help these clients, so that you can be prepared to provide the best possible patient care in these challenging situations.
What’s a vet tech to do when a client sees the estimate for their pet’s routine wellness visit and says “there’s no way that I can afford that”? You could simply approach the visit with an attitude of “well, that’s too bad!” and let the client leave without their pet receiving any care... however, that’s obviously not the best option! Read on to learn some strategies that can help in these scenarios.
Explain each item on the treatment plan thoroughly
In some cases, “I can’t afford that!” really means “I don’t see the value in that.” When you present a treatment plan, provide a detailed explanation of the benefits of each item on the plan. Many clients experience sticker shock upon seeing the overall estimate for their pet’s services, but reconsider that perspective once they realize all of the care that is actually included.
Discuss payment options
Many veterinary practices accept CareCredit® or other payment plans. If your practice offers payment options, take the time to learn about them in advance. Then, when you encounter a client who’s experiencing financial difficulties, you can present these options and potentially increase the likelihood that a pet receives necessary care.
Some practices offer wellness plans. These plans take the cost of a year’s worth of preventive care and break the cost up into monthly payments. If available, wellness plans can be an excellent way to help pets get the preventive care they need by allowing the client to spread the cost of care over an entire year.
Start with a physical exam and rabies vaccine
If you have exhausted the above options and the client still cannot afford everything on the preventive care plan, it is best to start with a physical exam and rabies vaccine (if due).
Rabies vaccination is required by law in most areas. Pets that are not up to date can face serious consequences. A physical exam is also essential, because it allows the veterinarian to assess the pet’s health status. This helps to ensure that there are no other, higher-priority items that must be addressed prior to providing preventive care. (For example, if a dog is showing signs of heart failure, an out-of-date Bordetella vaccine may be the least of the dog’s concerns!)
Help the client prioritize recommended care
While all preventive care is important, clients with financial constraints may need to ensure that the most important services are provided during the current visit, while postponing less essential services for a later visit. If a client gives you a set budget that they have available for that day’s visit, it’s up to you to help them figure out how to give their pet maximal benefits within that budget.
In general, core vaccines (DAPP and FVRCP) are the next priority. These vaccines protect against serious diseases that can affect almost any pet. Next, consider non-core vaccines and parasite prevention. In my area of the country (North Carolina), I consider heartworm prevention more important than non-core vaccines in dogs, because heartworms are common and their consequences are far more serious than the consequences of, for example, Bordetella. However, this is largely a function of location and personal preference. It's best to involve the veterinarian if a client must choose between non-core vaccines and parasite prevention.
Weight the relative importance of diagnostics
Diagnostic tests, such as fecal parasite exams and wellness bloodwork, are an important component of wellness care. However, the relative importance of these tests can vary significantly, depending on the patient.
For an indoor adult cat receiving monthly heartworm prevention and showing no gastrointestinal signs, for example, wellness blood work is likely more beneficial than a fecal parasite exam. In a young, outdoor dog that is not receiving consistent heartworm prevention, however, you would likely prioritize a fecal exam over blood work. Consider your patient when determining which diagnostic tests are most essential.
Any time a client declines a recommended service, it must be documented in the medical record. Some medical records programs make this easy, allowing you to click a “declined” button (or something similar) directly on the treatment plan. In other cases, you may need to enter a list of all services that were recommended and declined in the medical notes. Develop a clear system for documenting declined services, so that you can easily reference these records in the future. This will come in handy if the client later asks “why did my pet not receive X at our last visit?”
Don’t take it personally
Clients who decline necessary services can be frustrating. While some clients are very open about their financial limitations and will work collaboratively with you to find a solution, other clients may become rude or dismissive.
Regardless of how the client acts, avoid shaming clients for the level of care that they elect. All you can do is provide the best care that they will allow and hope that they will return at a later date for other recommended services. If you remain kind and understanding of their financial constraints, you increase the likelihood that they will do so and that their pet will receive necessary care.