Veterinarians call for cool heads in pricing probe

Negative media coverage targeting UK practitioners stokes mental health concerns

Published: September 26, 2023
Photo courtesy of Dr. Hunter Clark
Dr. Hunter Clark worries the U.K. pricing probe will stoke hostility toward veterinarians.

Veterinarians have pet owners "over a barrel," charge "shockingly" high fees and care more about profits than they do about animals.

That's the impression many people might have if they've been following the British press of late.

The negative headlines, topping national news bulletins, were triggered by an announcement on Sept. 7 that the United Kingdom is reviewing its veterinary sector amid a spike in the cost of care.

The probe by the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority is grounded in concerns that the rapid rise of big corporations in veterinary medicine could be crimping competition and allowing companies to price-gouge.

Although few deny the investigation is merited, fears are mounting that it could have the unintended consequence of fueling hostility toward a profession that already is grappling with a mental health crisis.

"We genuinely welcome the review," Dr. Malcolm Morley, president of the British Veterinary Association, which represents more than 19,000 veterinarians, said in an interview. "But we all shouldn't prejudge the outcome, and I think that prejudgement in the media is having a really big impact on frontline veterinary staff."

Mental health issues affecting veterinarians are well-documented and, somewhat ironically, often have been reported compassionately by the mainstream press. Various reasons are cited as drivers, such as distress associated with euthanizing animals and having to work long, irregular hours.

Veterinarians for years also have suffered the ire of some clients who are reluctant to pay for increasingly sophisticated and expensive medical procedures for their pets. The Covid-19 pandemic appeared to worsen that problem. Now, the launch of the CMA review during a cost-of-living crisis is pouring more fuel on the fire.

In brief

"Clients will always have concerns about finances — you and I would have concerns about unexpected costs," Morley said. "But when the media are then saying we are scammers, that is really hard for vets to take. It can be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

The regulator has invited submissions from veterinarians, veterinary nurses, practice managers and veterinary businesses as it conducts its review. It will provide an update in early 2024 outlining the issues it has identified and its proposed next steps.

"We have not yet formed a view about any concerns in the sector," the CMA told the VIN News Service through a spokesperson. "We're gathering evidence to inform our work, and that's why we want to hear from veterinary professionals as well as pet owners to understand their experiences."

Reasons for rising prices numerous, complex

It didn't take long for Dr. Hunter Clark, an American expat who practices in Bishopstoke, England, to start receiving complaints.

Clients had seen headlines — such as "Exploitative vets make me mad: Start putting our pets before your profit" and " 'They have you over a barrel': the UK pet owners facing staggering vet bills" — and were wanting answers.

"I'm a new grad working in the U.K. and was about three hours into my workday before the first client brought this up," Clark posted to the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. The client had sent Clark an email with a link to an article by the BBC and the message: "Sadly, I do think your prices are too high."

Clark said several more clients have since (politely) expressed similar concerns in person, all of them referencing the CMA probe. "Typically, we refer them to the CMA to contribute their thoughts," he said later in an interview. "Fortunately, we have not had any abuse yet at our practice regarding it."

The cost of veterinary care indeed has been climbing in the U.K. and elsewhere to the point where price rises are outpacing headline inflation rates in many countries. The reasons for those rises, however, are numerous and complex.

A shortage of veterinarians owing, in part, to a pandemic pet boom has pushed up employment costs. Supply chain pressures caused by a pandemic recovery and war in Ukraine have increased the prices of veterinary drugs and medical equipment. "I think it's really difficult to disentangle the drivers," the BVA's Morley said. Moreover, the U.K. has been grappling with trade problems and labor shortages associated with its 2020 exit from the European Union.

Many veterinarians share pet owners' concerns about high prices, as demonstrated by the rise of the spectrum-of-care movement, which advocates for offering treatment options that recognize the diverse needs of clients, including what they can afford to pay.

"It's really important, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis, that we can work and provide contextualized care for all clients, especially those who are struggling financially, and try to work out what is right for them and their animal," Morley said.

For his part, Clark, too, welcomes the CMA's review, which he hopes will ensure that no "predatory pricing" is occurring. At the same time, he urges pet owners to remember that veterinary practices are businesses that need to make money to pay practitioners.

The probe, Clark maintains, could even worsen price inflation by driving more veterinarians from the profession. "Vet shortages are rampant in the U.K., and pay is quite low," he said. "Regardless of what they find in this probe, I think it will have the opposite effect they intend."

British veterinarians are paid substantially less than their U.S. peers, earning between £30,000 and £50,000 on average per year (US$36,875 to US$61,458), government figures show, though salaries for specialists there can be higher. That compares with the US$103,260 median made by U.S. veterinarians, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. (U.K. veterinarians, however, have a large portion of their tuition subsidized by the government and tend to do better on vacation benefits. Moreover, the U.S. dollar is especially high against the U.K. pound at the moment, distorting comparisons).

Culture differences a factor

Differences between the U.K., U.S. and other countries go beyond pay. On the one hand, a relatively large number of animals in the U.K. are covered by pet insurance, potentially cushioning the blow for some clients. But on the other hand, human health care in the U.K., Australia and many other countries is subsidized by the government — potentially giving pet owners in those countries a poorer understanding, and unrealistic expectations, about the true cost of veterinary care, which isn't subsidized.

Dr. Michelle Barton, a veterinarian who practices in Brisbane, Australia, said costs of doing business there have been driven up by the price of drugs and consumables, recalling a recent 30% price hike for bandaging material. She, too, is concerned that pet owners don't fully realize that veterinary care can be inherently expensive.

"I feel for the vets in the U.K.," she posted on VIN, referencing the CMA probe while expressing concerns that a similar pricing investigation could be launched in Australia. "The media ranges from vet bashing to being sad about the suicide rate — not imagining the two are linked."

News of the British pricing probe comes as New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, conducts a parliamentary inquiry into workforce shortages in its veterinary industry — and the associated impact those shortages are having on practitioners' mental health.

The inquiry, for instance, has heard evidence from Garry Putland, whose veterinarian daughter Sophie Putland took her own life in 2021. Putland and other family members this year established the "We're only human" campaign, which invites pet owners to pledge that they'll be kind and respectful to their veterinarian.

The inquiry in NSW, which kicked off in June (and received sympathetic press coverage), received more than 200 submissions. A response from the government is pending.

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