General practice veterinarians form close relationships over the years and come to know their clients and patients well. This trusting bond is key to providing the best possible care for pets. Sometimes, this standard of care requires referral to and collaboration with a specialist for the best outcomes for complex cases, rather than the primary veterinarian “doing it all,” as in the past. In a perfect world, specialty care would be equally accessible to all pet owners, but barriers continue to exist. VESPECON is helping to overcome these barriers so that every pet gets the care they need.

What are the barriers to specialty care?

Client and general practice veterinarian preferences and perceptions and physical barriers like location can influence whether referral takes place. Veterinarians may consciously choose not to recommend referral, or they may base their decisions on unconscious biases. Common reasons veterinarians avoid referral include:

  • Client finances — 77% of surveyed veterinarians said that the top reason they avoid referral is that they believe clients can’t afford the care, or the client-pet bond is not close enough that they would choose the more expensive option.
  • Client inconvenience — Scheduling appointments can be difficult for clients, and can take weeks or months.
  • Poor specialist relationships—General practitioners without good working specialist relationships may be less likely to refer if they feel specialists communicate poorly with their practice or leave them out of patient decision-making.
  • Perceived ability to manage the case in house — The cases that general practitioners see most, including dermatology, internal medicine, surgery, and dentistry, are also the least-often referred, because general practitioners have the equipment and knowledge to manage them in house.
  • Perceived revenue loss — Clinic owners and partners sometimes feel that referring cases can result in lost clients and lost revenue.

Common reasons that clients fail to accept referral include:

  • Feeling referral isn’t necessary — Clients may not understand the complexity of their pet’s case or the reason for the referral.
  • Cost concerns — Referral fees are more expensive than many clients are used to, and they may get sticker shock if the value is not well communicated.
  • Distance/location—Some clients are unwilling to travel, or feel that travel stresses their pet too much, and do not want to visit a specialist outside their immediate area.

Referring patients sooner and more often can ensure better case outcomes, but overcoming barriers requires awareness and willingness. Follow our recommendations for placing more referrals and getting your clients to say, “Yes.”

#1: Recognize cases that benefit from early referral

Cases that benefit most from referrals may be those you least likely recognize. Cataract removal or orthopedic surgery are easy, no-brainer referrals, but conditions like allergies or diabetes, which are common, but appear complicated or won’t respond to first-line treatments, may also benefit from referral. Research shows that clients become frustrated and reach a tipping point if their pet’s condition isn’t resolved after three visits. These clients are less likely to return to your practice, so consider referring them early on to help build trust. 

#2: Keep an open mind

When you recommend referral more frequently, clients may surprise you. While veterinarians believe that cost is the largest barrier to care, clients most often decline referral because they do not believe it’s necessary. Clients accept referral because they want the best for their pet, despite the price tag. Be clear and honest with clients why you feel referral is the best option, likely outcomes with or without referral, and expected costs, and let them make their own informed decision.

#3: Communicate referral value to clients

Clients are more likely to accept a specialty referral when they understand the reason, how the specialist can help, and why specialty visits are more expensive. Explain to clients the extensive education and expertise of a specialist, and why your collaboration will achieve the best outcome. Studies also show that clients who pursue a specialty consult earlier in a disease course can save money in the long run, because their pet will require fewer visits to resolve the problem. 

#4: Build relationships with specialists

Knowing your local specialists will provide peace of mind when you recommend referral. Spend time with them on the phone or attend local open houses, so you understand their services, and they can learn your communication preferences. Local specialists want to build a relationship with you to provide pets for collaborative care, and they won’t try to steal your business. Specialists limit their scope of practice and prefer to send patients back to the primary veterinarian for continued care whenever possible.


VESPECON’s referral and consultation services provide an all-encompassing solution to overcoming specialty care barriers. Clients who are unable or unwilling to pursue in-person referral because of cost, distance, or preference can still obtain specialty-level knowledge and care when you consult with our advising specialists through video chat. For cases requiring in-person referral, our concierge services can coordinate a seamless visit to a network provider. Our specialists reserve appointment slots for VESPECON clients, so your patients see a specialist quickly, your clients have a hassle-free experience, and you’ll talk to the same person each time you consult. We can also help you build relationships with local specialists.

Providing specialty care for your patients can be difficult in many ways, but VESPECON makes things easy for you and your clients. Contact us here to learn more about our services, and start offering your clients advanced, hassle-free specialty medicine.