It’s a Dog’s Life
As everyone knows by now, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog. In US healthcare, it turns out, you might actually be better off being treated like a dog.
I recently had to manage my 12-year-old dog’s journey through the veterinary care continuum. I found a system that is responsive to provider, patient, and caregiver needs in ways that our human healthcare system is all too often lacking.
Charlie was a mixed breed rescue dog, but he presented as a black lab. Last spring, he developed a fatty lump on his chest that was benign but growing fast, so we consulted with our local veterinarian and decided to have it surgically removed.
Our ensuing veterinary saga took us from the local ambulatory vet to an acute care facility, back to the local vet, back again to a specialist employed by the acute care facility, back to the ambulatory vet, and finally to a palliative care vet. So, we had a “care team” of organizationally and geographically disparate clinicians of varying specialties. Not unlike, say, a typical Medicare patient.
Routine pre-surgery tests showed an abnormally high protein level, possibly indicating kidney disease. Our vet ordered another test with cystocentesis — insertion of a needle into the bladder — to get a sterile sample. Standard practice is to use an ultrasound to accurately place the needle. The surgeon who drew the sample noted in the EHR that while guiding the needle, she saw a peripheral “shadow” that seemed abnormal.
A follow-up abdominal ultrasound revealed a large mass on the spleen, either a non-cancerous hematoma or a malignant tumor (hemangiosarcoma), that needed to come out. Our vet referred us to Angell Medical Center in Boston, pretty much the Mass General of veterinary hospitals.
We got an appointment easily with a couple of emails to the surgical scheduler. The day before our visit to Angell, I got an email with an estimate of how much the visit would cost. That was a surprise. Not the estimated cost itself, but the fact that they did it at all.
We arrived, checked in, and were met immediately by a medical assistant who cheerfully greeted Charlie. After a quick medical history, she stayed on to scribe for the surgeon.
Kneeling to greet Charlie, the surgeon said that he had reviewed the chart from our local vet — which was already in the EHR (!) — and asked to hear my version of the story while he did his physical exam. He also actively communicated with the medical assistant.
Surgeon: “Can you please check the date of Charlie’s lab results from the local vet?”
Scribe: “Five days ago.”
Surgeon: “We also have the ultrasound report from the local vet, correct? Please read it aloud.”
Scribe: “Yes, no images, but we have the interpretation.”
He concluded there was no need for any more labs or imaging, and recommended a splenectomy and removal of the mass. We talked through the various scenarios and the likelihood and pros and cons and risks of each one. I asked about the price, and he said that I would receive a price estimate via email once he had signed off on the chart. Walking back to the lobby, he told me that on the day of surgery, his staff would send me text updates. He asked if I had any other questions.
Me: “I’m pleasantly surprised by your use of the EHR and a scribe. Is that common among vets?”
Surgeon: “Well, pets can’t talk, so I need to 100% focus on the pet’s and owner’s body language and emotional state to really know what’s going on.”
Me: “I’m impressed by the high-touch engagement with owners through mobile technology. That must be quite a recent change. Do you like these changes?”
Surgeon: “It’s not really a question of what I like. It’s what the world wants, so we either keep up or we go do something else.”
We scheduled Charlie’s surgery for a few days later. Our local vet, who had received the consult report from the surgeon, called me to see if I had any other questions and to wish us luck.
Dropping Charlie off on surgery day, I was part of a parade of owners who were tearily watching our pets being escorted through the double doors of their medical fate. Some sensed danger and frantically tried to dig their claws into the unforgiving tile floor, others were cautious but resigned with heads and tails cast downward, and the rest remained blissfully ignorant with tails wagging. Charlie cycled through all three stages, but ended up with tail wagging, choosing trust over anxiety.
By the time I got home, texts and pictures started arriving from the surgical staff:
“Charlie is resting comfortably before surgery. Please text us if you have any questions or concerns!”
“Charlie’s hanging out on his bed relaxing after surgery. The surgeon will call you shortly.”
“Charlie is getting ready for bed. He misses you!”
“Charlie is ready to come home whenever you are! Let us know what time you’ll be here, and we’ll have him ready to go!”
The surgeon called with a quick update that all went fine. He said he would call again in the morning after the pathology results came in. He called at 8:00 the next morning and told us that the mass was cancerous, but with no apparent metastases, Charlie should be good to go!
We received a final itemized bill that was 24% lower than the estimate. Our local vet — who received the surgery, discharge, and pathology reports from the hospital — called later that morning to express her relief that all had gone well and to discuss follow up.
I so wish I could report that all was fine after that. But I can’t, because it wasn’t.
A couple of months passed. Charlie still had issues, so back we went to Angell, this time to the internal medicine specialist, who again had all the updated local vet’s records available. Her diagnosis after examination broke my heart: large-cell lymphoma in multiple lymph nodes. Prognosis: grim.
Our local vet received the consult report later that morning and called to express her sadness and to help us sort out options. We ruled out further treatment (e.g., chemotherapy) to err on the side of quality, rather than quantity, of life. She connected us with a palliative care veterinarian, who came to our house to visit Charlie. The home vet had already reviewed Charlie’s records prior to our meeting (with our permission, given over the phone), so we were able to focus our time on next steps rather than on reviewing his medical history.
Our discussion was a best practice out of Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.” She guided us through a family discussion of our goals for Charlie, what Charlie’s goals might be for himself and for us if he could express them, and our family’s goals for each other. Then we talked about how these goals would translate into plans and actions that met everyone’s needs.
About a week later, Charlie woke up with respiratory difficulty. Quality-of-life indicators were also gone: he didn’t look up and wag his tail when I walked into the room, and he wouldn’t eat his favorite snack foods. One of our end-stage goals was to protect him from distress or pain or fear, so we consulted with his care team. We then spent the rest of the day talking to him and comforting him and letting him know how much he meant to us.
The home vet came late in the afternoon. I laid down next to him in his favorite bed and said goodbye to Charlie.
[Long pause. Deep breath.] Charlie was a very good boy who gripped my heart and never let go. I really miss him.
Our local vet got the final consult report from the home vet overnight and called me the next morning to console us and assure us that we had given Charlie both a joyful life and a dignified death. The home vet also called the next day to see if we were OK. Hand-written condolence cards arrived in the mail from the home vet and our local vet. The card from the local vet was signed, with short notes, by every member of the veterinary staff.
Our story ended sadly, but Charlie’s care journey was much better than similar human episodes that I’ve been through. How so?
- Customer service. We didn’t get valet parking or gleaming lobby atriums, but we did get attention not only whenever we needed it, but whenever we asked for it. From convenient communications via email and texting and promptly returned calls, to on-time appointments and regular updates, we always felt like the system was working for us instead of the other way around.
- Accountability. There is no Accountable Care in veterinary medicine, but we got plenty of accountability nevertheless. We never had to step in to fill obvious gaps. Medical records were shared electronically in the background among the various provider organizations without any intervention or “sneaker-net” transport from us. Doctors called us promptly with new information and called repeatedly when they couldn’t get hold of us. We were given price estimates prior to major visits, and the actual prices were almost always below what was estimated (obviously they’re gaming this a little, but it gave us confidence that we wouldn’t get any surprise bills).
- Care coordination. Transitions of care were well oiled by the exchange of records and consult notes and by phone calls between primary care and specialist and hospital. Referral loops got closed every time with timely consult reports back to the local vet. The hospital proactively pushed information back to the referring vet for local follow-up. The incidental finding of a tumor – a common gap in human health care – was picked up and followed through on expeditiously.
- Embracing of modern technology. There was no Meaningful Use for veterinarians, but all of the providers involved in Charlie’s care had invested in EHRs regardless. They were also active users of convenient communication technologies like email and texting. Finally, they integrated technology into the patient experience with well-orchestrated division of labor between physicians and support staff.
Before you deluge me with all the institutional reasons that impede human health care from being this responsive, I’ll beat you to the punch.
- Privacy and security. There is no animal equivalent of HIPAA or 42 CFR Part 2, which impose rules on information sharing.
- Payment. There are no claims, prior authorization, coding, documentation, quality measures, or Meaningful Use requirements imposed by health insurers, which occupy too much provider time.
- Technology. There are no EHR Certification or HIPAA Security Rule requirements, which load EHRs with a lot of administrative overhead and prevent the use of widely adopted off-the-shelf technologies (e.g., non-secure email and SMS) for communication with other providers and patients.
These constraints, and many more, certainly make veterinary care “easier” in some ways than human healthcare. And yet I’m not convinced that this accounts for the whole difference, or even most of the difference.
While it’s routine to complain about the burdens of HIPAA, the reality is that a large fraction of that burden is self-imposed, either for ulterior motives or out of sheer confusion or incompetence. See the recently released Patient Record Scorecard from ciitizen if you don’t believe me.
With respect to payment and technology, I sympathize with providers who understandably lament the hijacking of EHRs for ever-higher claims support documentation and quality reporting requirements. But one need only look at the circular firing squad debate on surprise billing to see that both institutional providers and insurers are complicit in putting their own needs ahead of patients’ needs.
Veterinary care isn’t perfect and has some of the same issues as human care, such as extra-inflationary price growth. But we didn’t have to goad Charlie’s providers to work as a team as if it were some unnatural act. We weren’t left anxiously waiting for important diagnostic results. And the condolence cards and calls we got from Charlie’s doctors after he died had me trying to remember whether that happened after my father and father-in-law passed away. Oh, I remember now – it didn’t.
Our human healthcare system has somehow become way less than the sum of its parts. Our world is divided into those who have already made that discovery and those who are just about to. It comprises brilliant, dedicated, and caring individuals whose efforts somehow often aren’t accretive or synergistic, giving us a “system” that is often indifferent, and all too often, aggressively callous toward patients. The veterinary “system,” by contrast, seems imbued with a certain humanity that is missing from human healthcare. Maybe what we need is an incentive payment tied to a “humanity” quality measure – pretty sure that’ll take care of it.
My profound thanks go to Dr. Alleman and the staff at VCA Rotherwood Animal Hospital in Newton MA, Dr. Schoenberg at Autumn Care & Crossings in Medford MA, and Drs. Trout, Kearns, and Magestro and the staff at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. Please please please keep doing what you do.
Micky Tripathi, PhD, MPP is president and CEO of the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative. The views expressed are his own.