Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How to trust an ER vet you just met

by Dr. Tony Johnson

I’m sorry, ma’am, your pet is going to need surgery”.

These are words any pet owner dreads hearing, especially on an emergency basis. For a pet owner, a trip to the veterinary ER can be a terrifying and frustrating experience; almost always unplanned… certainly unwelcome…usually expensive.

Part of the stress of an ER visit comes from having to entrust your pets care, and very possibly their life, to someone you have just met. This is a little bit like embarking on a perilous sea voyage with a captain you know nothing about. It can be a very scary and unsettling prospect.

How can you come through this stressful experience intact? How can you maximize the chance of your pet having a successful outcome and minimize your stress level?

Hopefully I can give you some pointers so this journey across the stormy seas of veterinary emergency care doesn’t end up on the rocks.

The first thing to know is this: Vets are not the enemy. They are in that ER in the dark of night because they want to help your pet get better. Sure, there are dishonest veterinarians just like there are dishonest hairdressers and dishonest orchestra conductors, but the vast majority of animal docs are there because of a sincere desire to help.

I think the easiest way to find a path to trust in these circumstances is to plan ahead, so you are armed and empowered with some information before the crisis hits. Emergencies don’t often give you the benefit of warning, but if you can pre-screen your veterinary ER options you will be ahead of the game.

I recommend contacting your trusted family veterinarian to find out where they send patients after hours. Consider calling or visiting the ER before an emergency happens to get a feel for how they run their ship. Do they make you feel welcome? Secure? Is the hospital clean and well equipped? If so, then you will likely feel more trusting when a true emergency takes place.

During the emergency visit itself, try and get a feel for your doctor. Do they seem rushed and unfocused, or do they take the time to answer your questions? Do they seem confident, overconfident or insecure? In order to earn your trust, they should be willing and able to answer your questions to your satisfaction. Part of the responsibility falls on you, however, to limit your questions to the important ones and avoid repetition. (We want you to be informed, but time is a precious commodity in the ER). Bring a notebook and write down the questions as you think of them along with the answers. It can be very difficult to remember all of the pertinent details when you are stressed and emotional. And remember not to take your stress out on the doctor or staff. Keep in mind that they are there to help you through this difficult situation.

When it comes to making treatment decisions, the important words here are ‘options’ and ‘advice’. A good doctor will give you realistic options for care (from the basic to the cutting edge) and advise you as to the risks and benefits of each as you plot a course. Their job is to help you come to a decision you are comfortable with that also meets the medical needs of your pet.

If the diagnostic and treatment options do not feel right to you, ask if there are any other options to explore. In many cases (but not all) there are plans A, B and C (and even sometimes D).

It is a tall order to be asked to trust your beloved pet’s life and health to someone you just met, but with just a little luck and a little knowledge, you can chart a course for a good outcome.

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