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Issue: 70 - Oct 15, 2014
Doctor, Heal Thine Own Pets: Do YOU Practice What You Preach?
By: Patty Khuly VMD MBA
Patty Khuly VMD MBA

If you’re like me, you’ve had plenty of cause to treat your own pets. After all, we know firsthand how expensive animal healthcare can be! But is it best? Probably not.

I started thinking about this after I came home from a recent long weekend trip and realized that my nine year-old Malinois had lost even more weight. She’d been losing steadily for a month but it’d been because she’d accumulated an extra few pounds and her OA had been bugging her. Better to get those extra pounds off than resort to NSAIDs, right?

So I’d reasoned. But now she was rib thin. “Time for a workup” is what my rational brain said. “Panic!” is what the rest of my consciousness screamed. And inaction is what the paranoid me would have resorted to were it not for my boyfriend’s more detached intervention.

In the end, she’d been fine and she’s since put a couple of pounds back on. But not without seeing an internist first. Because I’ve also learned firsthand how utterly useless the clinical me can be when I get too emotional.

Could the same be true for my colleagues, I wondered? Does how we treat our own pets inherently differ from how we treat our other patients?

Turns out, I’m not alone. In speaking with other veterinarians over the years, it’s become clear that many of us get overly-emotional and might not always do for ours like we would for others’ pets.

And so it goes for physicians, too. Whether it comes to their own healthcare or when making medical decisions for their families, they don’t always practice what they preach, either!

So say Duke University business school researchers who in 2011 published a study on the subject. In it they offered human docs a clinical scenario then asked them two simple questions (and I paraphrase):

#1: What do you recommend for this patient?

#2: What would you do if you were the one receiving this advice?

In a rational world, you would think the answers would be identical. But even physicians don’t live in a completely rational world.

Yes, this curious new study informs us that a significant majority of human healthcare providers may be rational in how they dole out prescriptions for treatment … yet lack rationality in how they would consume healthcare for themselves.

In one part, the study asked physicians whether they’d be willing to undergo vaccination –– a procedure which may rarely result in paralysis, and compares it to what they’d recommend it for their patients. So, too, did the study attempt to eke out the disparity between other, aggressive modes of treatment that are recommended vs. modes of treatment physicians claim they’d rather choose for themselves.

In general, it turns out that most physicians surveyed would always opt for the less aggressive and least scientifically substantiated approach for themselves, while taking the more aggressive, most rational approach on behalf of their patients. (In the examples offered by the study, the most rational approaches happened to coincide with therapeutic aggressiveness.)

It was at this point in the discussion that researchers felt it crucial to raise the issue: Could it be that healthcare providers are not best qualified to practice on themselves or their families? That rational, third-party recommendations tend to result in the best clinical outcomes?

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. Which, I extrapolate, helps explain why I find it extraordinarily difficult to justify practicing on my own pets –– not when others are undoubtedly better qualified to make rational decisions on their behalf.

After all, if it were up to me, I’d waste most of my decision-making moments suffering spasms of indecision in between embarrassingly brief moments of lucidity — none of which would be long enough to allow me to make a rational decision.

Hence, why I always outsource my own pets’ major calamities to others. And why I believe it is that once you find that one trustworthy practitioner (other than yourself, of course!), it’s always best just to give up the drivers’ seat and allow someone else to steer — for a change.