What makes a good vet?

It’s about time.
By Nick Trout, January 2014, Updated February 2015

Every so often after an exhaustive consultation, I am the lucky recipient of a peculiar compliment: “I wish you were my doctor!” When I was a young veterinarian, I was thrilled to be held in higher esteem than my colleagues in human medicine. Now, years later, I see the sleight of hand in a trick that flatters my profession at the expense of another.

It’s all about time. Time is critical to people’s sense that their dogs are receiving better quality heath care than they get, not least because much of what vets do takes longer. Veterinarians deal with “signs,” clinical findings that we touch, hear, see, smell and, if we’re unlucky, taste. MDs have the additional benefit of “symptoms,” their patients’ verbal communication of abnormal sensations or changes in bodily functions. This means that MDs can pick up on subtleties, aches and twinges, whereas dogs have to wait until a problem becomes grossly visible, palpable, malodorous, audible or debilitating to a sufficient degree that people finally realize something is not quite right.

Denied the luxury of the spoken word, veterinarians can only interpret the language of animal signs. Pediatricians, who encounter similar problems with young children, are forced to interrogate parents for answers, but similarities end when we approach a dog who does not share his owner’s regard for the man or woman in the white coat. In my world, nothing happens when I say “open wide,” hoping to inspect canine tonsils. Examinations require trust, trust takes time and, with so many new smells and sounds, the distractions are endless.

No wonder our style of medicine seems more personal. Dog owners feel less hurried because, thankfully, we don’t have a choice. I’m certain MDs are just as sympathetic, but they can save time via direct communication—and, for the most part, are less likely to be bitten.


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Another major factor in veterinarians’ favor is the relatively small number of animals we serve compared to the volume of people seen by MDs. In an article in the Boston Globe, Judy Foreman (a nationally syndicated health columnist) made some interesting comparisons between two quite different Boston hospitals: Massachusetts General and my place of work, the Angell Animal Medical Center. Mass General sees 1.5 million outpatients a year, compared to about 50,000 at Angell. Patients at Mass General speak about 60 different languages, proving that the spoken word is not always that helpful (although that’s 60 better ways to communicate than I have), and its average number of inpatients at any given time is 800, compared to about 60 at Angell.

What this all means is that vets have more time for their patient and the spokesperson paying the bill. Fewer inpatients mean that blood tests, biopsy results and radiology reports are quick to turn around and their interpretation and communication to the owner is faster, all of which reinforces our superior service. We have more time to discuss the case, to leave written updates, to take pages, to return calls promptly, to go over discharge instructions in more detail. No wonder we look good. In my world, veterinarians are reimbursed for time spent with the family as well as the patient. It is an integral part of the service we offer.

Clearly, the human medical profession has taken notice of the superior patient satisfaction among their veterinary counterparts. A company called Customer Service University (CSU) has produced a 13-minute video called It’s a Dog’s World that highlights the consequences of poor healthcare service. Bob and his Golden Retriever, Max, are injured while out for a walk. As the CSU website boasts, “Bob is treated like a dog at his healthcare facility, and Max gets the royal treatment at his vet’s office.” The unfortunate logic of “being treated worse than a dog” is not lost on me, but I believe most viewers will find some unsettling truths in a tale that ends with Bob’s wife thanking an anonymous doctor for a followup call; the attentive clinician is unmasked as the vet when we hear suggestions on ways to hide medication in dog food.

These days, I have an answer ready when an owner drops the “I wish you were my doctor” compliment: I offer a smile, shake my head and say, “I’m pretty sure your dog would disagree. Ask his opinion the next time I take his temperature!”

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 76: Winter 2013

Illustration by Eunike Nugroho

Nick Trout is a Diplomate of the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Surgeons and a staff surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.