Letter to the editor: The true value of a veterinarian

I read the article 'What do pet owners think about vets', and pondered over some of the sentiments from within that article, and about our true worth.

I thought that we, and our representatives, do need to state our case to the public and its media more  effectively, as well as to ourselves.

It was a significant survey, but I found it a bit subjective, with a hint of negativity. Some significant lines for me included, "cost is a concern," "The cost of vet services is definitely seen as a barrier to visiting the vet," "Vet fees were most likely to be compared with fees charged by medical specialists or GPs." and "We see community perceptions of vet fees as a strategic priority."

So, if I tell the story of a small animal practice, because that's the one I know after 35 years in private practice, but I think is relevant across the board, perhaps our true worth will be clearer.

A veterinary practice is a classic small business, within an industry of compassion. It might have a gross turnover of $1 million, employs 8 full time equivalent staff, has a drug bill of $250,000, and after a myriad of other costs returns a profit of between 5–15%.

Associate veterinarians earn between $50–100k, and practice owners, perhaps twice that. The next time you are at a dinner party, and the banker next to you states that "vets are so expensive", just mention that salary range and see how quiet they become (for fear that you might ask them how much they make).

Our worth as part of a community is unprecedented. The public are comfortable to telephone about all manner of things, and not always about health or behavioural issues. For example, when a cockatoo is swinging gaily off the local bicentennial flag in a high wind, 50 metres up, who else do you call? And when you tell them not to worry that it will eventually let go, they ring the armed forces and the fire brigade who attend the situation, at which point it flies away! True story.

We offer free advice regarding all aspects of preventative care, only to have those people then shop online. What a scourge online is.

A dedicated group of well-meaning people nab every unsuspecting small fluffy dog and deposit them at their local vets as a 'stray'. We smile, take the animal and usually find its owner within the hour.

We become the first port of call for injured wildlife, often two or three times daily, for no cost. We make decisions about their care and future. It's what we do.

Can you get these types of value services at your solicitor, accountant or medical practitioner? Can you ring them and just chat about stuff?

Remember – we are a non-subsidised profession. There is no comparison at all with the human medical profession, which maintains its elite status partly because of massive subsidisation. Realise that around 27.5% of your taxation supports health. So, I have been to the GP once in the last 3 years. I paid a gap of $31 for that visit, and having paid about $100k tax in that 3 years, means my fee for that visit was $27,531. If I ever get a new joint I expect 24K gold with diamond inserts!

Our actual job of the health and care of pets is diverse. We vaccinate, desex, catheterise, remove foreign bodies and treat a vast array of dermatological conditions. We advise, educate, accept a broad spectrum of work experience students and, somewhere amongst all that, assist in protecting the country from exotic disease.

We do our job with such compassion, decency and efficiency, that I sometimes think of us as paid volunteer workers. At other times it just wears you out.

My point is that we do not need to be defensive about our position in society. In fact society loves us. We are always in the top 10 of most trusted professions and we remain closely linked to our local community in a time when that is fading. We do so much good and we should be positive about that, both to ourselves and to the general public.

Our representatives, the AVA and Board, when questioned by the media, must never be negative about us, as is hinted at in the article.

We don't charge too much. We are better than the medicos and all the others, and our commitment is unquestionable. What's more, people like us! These are our strategic priorities.

Stephen Abrahams
West Pennant Hills Veterinary Hospital

Reference:

  1. Balzer M. What do pet owners think about vets? We now have the data! Aust Vet J 2014;92(8):N16-18.

This article appeared in the October 2014 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal

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