Putting a price on priceless


It's your job to offer the best care. Then clients have to make the tough decisions about how much their pets are worth to them. Sometimes you'll be surprised by the answer—and sometimes they will, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my 10-year-old car to the shop for an oil change and checkup. The mechanic took it for a spin and informed me that my clutch would go out in the next couple of months. My first question: “How much?” When he told me it would cost $1,000, I quickly estimated I'd be investing 25 percent of the car's actual value in this fix.

Don't get me wrong—I love my car. We've had some good times. However, to invest that kind of money in a car that could die within a year just doesn't seem worth it. So when the mechanic gave me the best option to help prolong my car's career, I graciously declined. My best option as I saw it: Go buy another car.

I was instantly struck by how similar this experience is to situations I deal with in the exam room. Just one example: I had a client whose 8-year-old chocolate Labrador was sick for the first time. I explained the tests that we'd need to perform and the possibility of hospitalization.

As I left the exam room to make the estimate, the owner told me he'd paid $800 for the dog and so $800 was all he was willing to pay to address this health problem. After all, that's what the dog was worth.

As I left the room I thought about what the owner had said. He seemed very close to his dog. They'd had eight wonderful years together, so why should price matter? Yet this client approached health care for his dog the same way I addressed my car problem: If the price is too high, I can always go buy another.

I told my technician which diagnostics I wanted completed. She made the estimate and told me the total was above $900. She admitted, though, that if we took off the ultrasound we could get the price under the $800 mark.

I thought about taking the ultrasound off and doing the best I could. But if I did, I'd be tailoring my diagnostic plan to the owner's specifications. And my perception of his chocolate Labrador was different than his. In the exam room, I saw the owner's 4-year-old daughter hug her dog, and I knew this dog was more than an investment—he was a member of the family. It was my job to offer him the best treatment.

So I left the ultrasound on the estimate, knowing I was giving the owner my best advice. He looked the estimate over and accepted the plan—minus the ultrasound. I told the man to leave his pet for the afternoon so we could run the blood work and take radiographs.

But as I left the room, the owner called after me, “Go ahead with the ultrasound, if that's what needs to be done.” He'd finally come to terms with what I'd already figured out: He just couldn't put a price on this family member, who probably logs more hours on the couch than he does.

More and more pet owners are finding that their companions don't come with a price tag. Sometimes they just need the doctor to present them with the best option to realize what they truly want—regardless of price.

The next time I go into an exam room to present an estimate, I may just borrow that MasterCard advertising campaign:

Blood work     $110

Urinalysis       $34

Having your dog greet you at the door at the end of the day with a big whopping kiss ... priceless.


Dr. Andrew Rollo is an associate at Gibraltar Veterinary Hospital, a five-doctor, small animal practice in Gibraltar, Mich., and a member of the Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board.

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