When a general practice (GP) veterinarian is considering the complex decision of referring a patient to a specialist, they naturally want to focus on the pet’s best interests. However, they must consider other factors, including client and practice finances, and their own abilities. Rather than being collaborative, the specialist-GP veterinarian relationship tends to be competitive, and many GPs are reluctant to refer their patients for specialty care because they fear that referral could harm their practice or client relationships. 

Our VESPECON group of consulting and referral specialists is here to change this long-held belief by describing our services, which can improve patient care, client relationships, and practice revenue. Before you put your financial security and reputation on the line for your patients, put aside the veterinary referral myths, and learn the facts of how relying on an efficient referral service can elevate your practice. In 2012, a group of veterinary professionals formed a coalition to determine why the veterinary medicine referral system is underutilized and strained compared with similar human medicine disciplines. To bust some common myths surrounding veterinary referral, we turn to the findings of the Collaborative Care Coalition (CCC [formerly VetSOAP]), which conducts research to develop evidence-based conclusions and recommendations surrounding veterinary referral. 

Myth: Clients cannot afford veterinary specialty referral

Truth: Research cites that 77% of GP veterinarians’ top reasons for not offering referral are perceived expense and client willingness to pay. Perception and reality are different, and more clients than you believe may be willing to pay for their pets’ specialty care. In a study looking at owner-pet relationships and how these impact pet care, most clients who did not follow veterinary recommendations did so because they felt the care was unnecessary, and only two of ten clients declined care because of cost. If you believe referral is in a patient’s best interest, determining whether they can afford that care should be left to the owner—your responsibility is to present all the options, and guide the client through making the best choice for their situation. Research also shows that referral to a specialist can actually save the client money in the long run, owing to quicker resolution times and lower recurrence rates, which result in fewer visits. A chronic otitis study revealed that 43% of cases co-managed by a GP and a board-certified veterinary dermatologist resolved completely, compared with 0% resolution in GP-managed cases. Recurrence took 171 days in the co-managed cases, versus 21 days for the GP-managed cases, and 91% of co-managed cases showed improvement in proliferative changes versus 13% under GP care.

Myth: Clients want me to try everything before veterinary specialist referral

Truth: CCC research revealed that clients reach a tipping point of frustration if their pet’s issue is not resolved within 3 appointments, or after spending $925 at the primary veterinarian. After this point, clients begin to lose trust in the practice, choosing to find care for their pet elsewhere—15% of frustrated clients do not return for routine care, and 28% do not return for a serious issue. Client surveys showed that cases referred before the tipping point save around 25% in total costs, while 82% of clients referred after that point lost confidence in their veterinarian and wished they had been given the veterinary specialist option sooner. 

Myth: I do not need to consider veterinary referral for cases I can handle myself

Truth: Simply because you can provide a specific veterinary service, does not mean you always should. When complex or emergency situations arise, you can likely handle them, but specialty care may result in better patient outcomes. Specialists hone their craft every day, and are usually able to resolve patients’ issues more quickly and provide longer survival times. For example, one retrospective study of more than 700 dogs with gastric dilation volvulus (GDV) showed an overall survival rate of 86.9% after surgery, but also revealed that mortality was twice as likely in patients whose surgery was performed by a GP rather than by a specialist surgeon. One reason for the higher mortality rate for dogs whose surgery was performed by a GP could be that the general practitioners took an average of 100 minutes to perform the surgery, while specialists completed the surgery in around 60 minutes. Surgical time and postoperative intensive care unit (ICU) care can make all the difference for critical, high-risk patients. 

Myth: Referring veterinary patients equals lost income

Truth: Based on CCC’s research, we know that patients co-managed under specialty care have better outcomes and higher overall survival rates. Referral builds client trust and loyalty because they know their pet has received the best care and achieved a positive outcome. Since their pet has received high-quality care because of your referral to a specialist, clients return to your practice for their pet’s primary care, and bring in other clients through word-of-mouth referrals. A study of congestive heart failure showed a 22% greater revenue for GPs whose patients were under collaborative care because the pets lived 74% longer than those managed by a GP alone. Most specialists limit services to their specialty, and strongly recommend clients return to the primary veterinarian for all other care needs.

How VESPECON can help your veterinary practice

Referral can improve GPs’ client relationships and bottom line, and VESPECON‘s services can help. To ensure you can offer specialty care to your clients without the wait, we offer video consulting services with our close-knit consulting specialist group. Our experts can help you comanage cases virtually—elevating patient care and improving client loyalty. For patients whose issues are too complex to manage in-house, we can help you seamlessly transfer them to a local specialist enrolled in our provider network. We help you build relationships with local specialists, and ensure a pain-free referral process—for both you and your clients.

To learn additional facts and benefits about referral, check out CCC’s full white paper here. For more information about adding referral services to your practice, contact VESPECON, and begin elevating your patient care game.