Monday, October 27, 2014

Insurance is for the dogs—and cats

Your brother’s portly beagle was treated for a ruptured intervertebral disc and is finally home from the specialty clinic.   She’s okay, but her $6,000 medical bill put a significant dent in the family savings account.  You’re not worried about that; Your dog is svelte, fit and athletic.  And your neighbor’s cocker mix needed a $3,000 surgery to remove a sock he ingested.  That won’t happen to your picky poodle, so why worry about it, right?  

Wrong-ish.  I don’t want our clients to be fearful that every perceived malady might turn into a major medical expense, but I also think they need to be prepared if that day ever comes.  How to accomplish that?  By buying a pet insurance plan.

When pet insurance first came out in this country, in 1982, veterinarians were skeptical that it would be useful.  At about the same time, HMOs were expanding.  They had a negative public image due to the stipulations they imposed upon their plan members, often preventing them from getting the quality of care they needed.  That, along with the restrictions enforced by traditional human health insurance plans, left a bad taste in the mouths of veterinarians and our clients alike.  Our impression was that pet insurance was just a variation of human health insurance.

But now we know that pet insurance resembles property insurance more than it does human health insurance:  The owner submits the claim to the insurance company after the pet has received care, and then the company reimburses the owner.  That’s a good thing, because the insurance company doesn’t dictate price constraints on veterinarians, and we aren’t inundated with paperwork.  It’s also far easier for the pet owner to understand. 

A typical pet health insurance plan will reimburse you for vet bills when your dog gets sick or is injured, but you can also get coverage for wellness visits and preventive care.  A basic policy might cover only accidents, emergencies and illnesses (including cancer) for as little as $10 a month, but the maximum benefit will be lower. (Vet Pet Insurance’s limit is $7,000 annually, for example.) Higher-priced plans include additional coverage for conditions such as hereditary illnesses, chronic conditions, dental cleaning, vaccinations, laboratory tests, and drugs.  They tend to cover a higher percentage of the costs and have larger maximum benefits.

Trupanion has distinguished itself by making pet insurance less confusing. It offers separate plans for dogs and cats.  The plans are kept simple by covering only unexpected veterinary costs, such as hospital stays, diagnostic tests, medications, surgeries, oral surgery and extractions, and other things that arise when your dog or cat is ill or injured.  After the deductible, they cover 90% of the costs.  Best of all, there are no limits on the amount of reimbursement.  Like other companies, they won’t cover pre-existing conditions.

Trupanion is similar to other pet insurance companies in that it determines pricing by considering age at enrollment, breed, gender, whether your pet is neutered, and where you live.  Hereditary conditions are covered; that’s important, because some insurance companies seem to consider just about anything a hereditary condition.  A client recently told me that her insurance company rejected her claim for surgery for her Labrador’s torn cruciate ligament because the problem was “hereditary.”  I’ll bet that company wouldn’t cover glaucoma in a cocker spaniel for the same reason.  As Golum would say, that is tricksy!

Once Trupanion gives you a quote, you can customize your monthly premium by choosing a deductible, from $0 to $1,000.  That’s great,   because it allows the pet owner to set a price that fits his budget, and the deductible can be changed any time.   The premiums are adjusted periodically based on inflation and other criteria.

If you’re ever faced with making a major health-care decision about your pet, consider how much less stressful it would be if the cost was only a minor concern.   With the affordable pet insurance available today, it’s worth your time to do a little homework to protect your blood pressure, your bank account and your furry friend. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Continuing educations for vets: A grinding week at Peppermill

I yawned as I pulled into the garage at 1 in the morning. I had just come home from a week in Reno, Nev., where I stayed at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino.   Besides a large casino (and the ubiquitous slot machines scattered throughout the resort), there was a spa, two swimming pools, a large fitness center, three boutiques, 11 restaurants, and over a dozen lounges. 

But don’t ask me how much money I won gambling, how I enjoyed a relaxing massage, or even how the weather in Reno was, because I don’t know!  I was there for the Wild West Veterinary Conference. And though I did get to eat a couple of sandwiches poolside, the rest of the amenities unfortunately were wasted on me.  By the time the seminars were over for the day, my neurons were fatigued, and all I wanted to do was eat dinner and go to my room to watch something completely mindless on TV.  But for those who desired it, there was plenty to keep them busy besides the aforementioned perks, including hikes in the mountains, sunrise yoga, and golf.

To maintain a professional license in Illinois, veterinarians have to accumulate 40 hours of continuing education over two years.  Sitting through seminars all day earns about six hours, which means it takes about a week of full-time learnin’ to fulfill the educational requirements.  It doesn’t seem like a lot of time, really, and most of us at Vernon Hills Animal Hospital go well over our limit.  But attending at least one of these large seminars is usually necessary to attain our 40-hour goal.  We fill in the blanks with local seminars and online webcasts. 

Because many of the larger conferences are far away, improving one’s gray matter isn’t inexpensive.   These conventions are businesses unto themselves, and they need to have good attendance and make money.  They know that veterinarians and their staffs would rather go to Orlando or San Francisco than Chicago or Milwaukee ─ hence the trip to Reno.
My erudition for the week was heavy on dentistry and geriatric feline medicine, with some dermatology, cytology, and orthopedics thrown in the mix.   In addition to the seminars I attended, there were offerings in complementary, alternative, exotic, and equine medicines; business lectures; and a separate, comprehensive program for veterinary technicians.
Besides offering valuable learning experiences, these conferences are great way to connect with our colleagues, whether known or unfamiliar.  Due to his many speaking engagements and his involvement at the North American Veterinary Conference, Dr. Barten has a large network of friends and colleagues and is sure to always have a companionable group to socialize with at any given meeting.  Me?  Not so much, but it’s always interesting to sit next to another veterinarian or technician and hear about their experiences and opinions.  I’ve learned a lot from them over the years.
Another essential part of our ongoing education is learning about new drugs and technology, and the exhibition hall is the place to go for that.  Dozens of companies involved in veterinary medicine have exhibits where one can learn about and buy new equipment, services, gadgets, drugs, diets, software, and books.  It’s also a place to connect with the people who help you run certain aspects of your practice.  I finally got to meet Jose, a computer guru with, the company that builds and hosts our website.  I have enlisted his help over the phone many times, and it was nice to finally meet the man who belongs to the voice!  

Continuing education (CE) is important for veterinarians and our staffs because it helps us deliver the best quality of medicine we possibly can.   It’s impossible to keep up with all aspects of our profession, even with dozens of hours of CE, but we certainly do our best.  Just as important, it helps us know when we need to refer a patient in order to make sure the pet gets the best care it deserves.   But CE is not glamorous; it’s work, albeit fun work.  And exhausting.  I’m used to running around the hospital and interacting with pets and clients, not sitting still for hours at a time and absorbing new knowledge. For me, staying awake during lectures requires multiple cups of coffee, and based on the lines at the conference coffee urns, I’m not alone!   But stay awake I did, and the reward was a revitalized frame of mind and the ability to incorporate some new ideas in our practice.  

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fitness apps for Fido

If you’ve noticed that people are opting to park their cars at the far end of parking lots much more than they used to, you might be witness to something that’s all the rage these days:  wearable activity trackers. Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand, and Jawbone UP, among others, are worn as a wristband or clipped to clothing. They record data such as how many steps you take, the distance you’ve gone, the number of calories burned, even how long you sleep. Most of the devices use Bluetooth technology to wirelessly sync your activity data to your mobile phone.  And there are lots of cool apps that work with the trackers to enhance your fitness experience. 

Considering how much we humans love our activity trackers, it was only a matter of time before a Fitbit-like device was created for the tail-wagging community.  A number of brands have entered the market recently, and although there are subtle differences among them, their declared purpose is the same:  to help you stay connected to your best friend when you’re at work or otherwise away from him.

Introduced last summer, the Whistle Activity Monitor seems to be popular.  It attaches to your dog’s collar.   A built-in accelerometer measures his activities and rest, and sends updates wirelessly to a free app on your smartphone.   The app provides a visual summary of your dog’s activities, such as playtime, walks, and resting periods.   You can also record which medications your dog takes, write reminders for his care, and track his food intake.  As with FitBit et al., you can set a daily exercise goal and monitor the intensity of his exertion.  If you want to see how hard and how long your expensive dog walker is exercising Fido, check your smartphone.  Want the whole family to be involved?  Multiple users can access the app, ensuring that pet sitters, friends, and all family members can be plugged in to your dog’s life. 

Of course, you’ll want to share your dog’s experience on social networking sites! You can post photos there, or share them privately among your group of friends.  The app also shows you a visual comparison of activity and rest between your furry friend and other dogs of the same breed, age, and weight.  The Whistle gets a laudable eight to 10 days’ worth of battery life, includes a docking station for charging, and costs about $130, with no monthly fee.  The company assures its customers that Whistle will expand its capabilities and only become more elegant with time (including adding a soon-to-be available GPS tracker).   

Another product, FitBark ($109 if pre-ordered), is set to launch this year and is similar to Whistle.  Another product called Tagg (around $100) combines a fitness monitor and a pet tracking device.  But Voyce (around $300), which will be available this fall, was of the most interest to me.  Like Whistle and FitBark, it monitors your dog’s activity patterns.  It also measures the calories your dog burns and compares the data to prior trends.   But Voyce distinguishes itself from the rest of the trackers by using radio waves to measure your dog’s respiratory rate and resting heart rate, and it gives you a daily average.

When I first read about these doggie trackers, my initial reaction was:  Has the techie world jumped the shark?  Then I realized that despite being fairly tech-savvy, I fail miserably in the staying-connected department.  Part of the reason is my 37 years of veterinary practice, during which I’ve been required to be continually available to patients and colleagues.  For me, an occasional respite from “connectedness,” even from my own pets, is okay.  So perhaps my perspective is jaded compared with that of the general dog-owning population.    

But after further contemplation, I really do see the benefit of these activity trackers.   First, they’re fun if you love technology, although the charm might wear off after a while.  I think monitoring a pooch’s exercise (and doing something about it if it’s falling short) not only makes pet parents become more responsible but is certainly a boon to the dog’s health.  According to a 2012 study commissioned by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, more than 52% of dogs are overweight o r obese.   In a 14-year study by Purina, the median lifespan of the Labrador retrievers that were kept lean was increased by 1.8 years.  So that glow of pride when you receive a congratulatory text from your app because Fido met his fitness goal is a good motivator.

These trackers’ ability to show trends in your dog’s eating and activity patterns could be a valuable way to alert you to a potential health problem.  For example, an unexplained decrease in either could be a red flag and might inspire a phone call or a trip to your vet’s office.  The capability of Voyce to monitor a dog’s heart and respiratory rate has real medical potential.  It isn’t terribly important for the average healthy dog, but I can see it as a life-saving tool for those with problems such as pneumonia, laryngeal paralysis, severe heart murmurs, or congestive heart failure.   The client can send the data to a veterinarian, who can then decide whether intervention is needed. 

Think of these gadgets as giving you a new perspective on your dog’s day-to-day life.  If the tracker shows that your buddy spends the best part of his day bored and sleeping, it might inspire you to enroll him in a couple of days of doggy day care, or give him some extra time on walks or at the dog park.  That alone would make it worth the price tag.