Treat People like Dogs

By Oberthaler, Karen | Newsweek, March 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Treat People like Dogs


Oberthaler, Karen, Newsweek


Byline: Karen Oberthaler, V.M.D.

When I say I'm a veterinary oncologist, I am usually met with a bemused, slightly incredulous reaction. I'm often asked, "Do people really treat their pets for cancer?" As a matter of fact, they do. Not only do I administer radiation and chemotherapy to cats and dogs (not to mention the occasional ferret and hedgehog) on a daily basis, but I work in one of the most sophisticated veterinary hospitals in the country, with a neurosurgeon, a dermatologist, an ophthalmologist, and a host of other specialists. Pet owners routinely rack up $10,000 bills to save the life of an animal that they consider a beloved member of the family.

This may seem extreme, but it's not even close to what many Americans do for their (human) relatives. A breathtaking $66.8 billion each year--almost a third of all Medicare dollars--is spent treating patients in the last two years of their lives. Too often, expensive procedures are tried simply so medical providers can cover themselves against potential lawsuits from bereaved family members who want to make sure everything possible was done. The fact that insurance generally covers all of this makes it more likely that doctors and patients pile on excessive and nonessential tests and procedures.

About 90 percent of my animal patients are geriatric--and, as odd as this sounds, the veterinary world may hold lessons for the broader health-care system. While pet insurance exists, only roughly 3 percent of owners carry it; even then, clients pay a substantial portion of costs themselves. That means they usually want to know the rationale behind each test. I explain what I think is going on, what I want to look for, and which tests I need to perform to find it. I rank the diagnostics from most to least essential and lay out approximate costs. My clients then choose what they want done, with an understanding of the relative importance, risk, and cost of each option. …

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