The other day I was in an automobile accident.  I was banged up a bit and had some headaches and neck pain that were persisting.  My wife insisted that I go to see a doctor so I scheduled an appointment at a primary care facility in my home city.

I admit that I don’t go to the doctor very often.  Actually, it had been many years since I had seen a physician.  He was a super doc that dabbled in functional medicine and the few times I went to see him, we mostly compared notes about the way he treated his human patients with alternative remedies and how I treated my four-legged patients with similar remedies.

After filling out paper work for over 20 minutes, I was placed in an examination room for a few minutes.  A lady doc came in and told me her name, Dr. …..  She did not ask me my name, but I gave it to her anyway.  For the next ten minutes, she stared at the computer, asked me questions, and typed my answers into her computerized medical record.  She talked to me about neck pain and possible symptoms of a concussion and asked me if I had any questions.  Then, she checked my blood pressure, had me turn my head side to side and up and down and had me sit back down.  She said she would send me to X-ray to see if I had a neck fracture and I followed my instructions and had it done.  Fortunately, no fractures.

Now, I admit that I don’t work on humans but I do know enough about brain and neck trauma to know that her exam was less than thorough.  She never checked my pupils (very important with brain trauma), nerve function (even though I told her that I had tingling in my fingers which suggested a peripheral nerve irritation, muscle strength, not even felt my neck for where the pain was coming from.  I hate to say this but I can’t imagine doing an examination on one of my patients like this.  

Unfortunately, this has become the norm for today’s medical profession.  Why?  Because most of the medical facilities are now owned by corporate business.  It is not likely a surprise to you as most cities in the US have seen the increase in corporate medicine for many years now.  I personally know physicians who have retired early because of this.  One of my clients, a retired pediatrician, told me that she could not properly examine a young child in the twelve minutes that she was given for each appointment.  That is all the corporate office would allow.

We are now dealing with the same problem in veterinary medicine.  When I first went into practice many years ago, there was a rule that no one that was not a veterinarian could own a veterinary clinic.  That changed when a group of attorneys in California saw the potential to make money in the veterinary profession and challenged the state law in California.  The state legislature ruled in their favor and the water began to flow over the damn.  Veterinary Corporations of America (VCA) was formed.  It was the first of an increasing movement towards corporate veterinary care.

The timing was right for VCA as many older veterinarians were in a bit of a pickle.  The standard rights of passage for practice owners was that the vet would build a practice and when he/she was ready to retire, they would sell the hospital to an associate vet that worked for them.  This happened for many years.  But, some hospitals grew so large that it became too expensive for a young vet to purchase.  Twenty years ago, if a vet clinic was worth a million dollars, the banks would not lend the money for that type of purchase.  These hospitals came to be known as “white elephants.”  The owner was stuck with it and unable to retire.

When VCA came into play, they took advantage of this and offered these white elephant practices a cash price that would enable the owner to cash out and retire.  Remember the old Christmas movie, A Wonderful Life, when old man Potter tried to get people to cash out for fifty cents on the dollar.  Yep, it was a lot like that.

VCA bought many of these large vet clinics throughout the country and boy did they change things around.  They came in fired most of the experienced vets and changed the rules.  The experienced vets were replaced with new graduates and were paid by a percentage of income that they collected for the clinic.  The hospitals were run by high management people with skills in business and profit, not by veterinarians.  A friend of mine who was a vet at one of the VCA hospitals said his new boss told them that she had no interest in medicine, just the bottom line. 

Algorithms were established by the company, forcing vets to practice by their rules without exception.  Corporate contracts with the pharmaceutical industry guaranteed that the medications that were available to patients were limited to those that had been purchased by the corporate contracts.  Everything had the sole intent to make money.  Patient health care had been put on the back burner.

It did not stop there.  VCA continued to expand in the profession.  It purchased the largest laboratory facility in the US, so that all VCA clinics would send all their lab work to the VCA owned lab.  Specialty practices were purchased and brought into the fold of VCA.  The intent was to keep everything in the hospital under the control of corporate headquarters.

Then other corporations became involved.  Banfield Veterinary Hospitals was the next corporate veterinary entity and it formed a co-operative with PetsMart.  The rest is history.  More corporate hospitals, more control by business instead of veterinarians.  Last summer it reached a new level.  The Mars Corporation (yes, the candy bar company) purchased VCA and all its entities, including over 2000 veterinary hospitals.  The corporation had previously purchased Banfield and some smaller corporate facilities like Blue Pearl and Pet Partners.  They also purchased other pet-focused business, including several pet food companies like Royal Canin, Iams and Pedigree.  Their pet care industry employs 35,000 people in over 50 countries.

So, what can we do to avoid getting trapped into the money making business instead of a health care facility?  Become an empowered pet caretaker.  If you take your pet to one of these facilities, always ask questions about their recommendations.  If you have ever taken your car in for an oil change, you will have an idea of what can happen.  Some how, your $19 oil change ended up costing your $85.  

They are a really savvy business company and know how to make money.  They offer programs that will save you money, but by discounting services that your pet doesn’t need.  Example:  If you purchase this program for a discount of this amount, your pet will get a yearly exam, annual vaccinations and a teeth cleaning.  Your pet does not need yearly vaccinations or annual teeth cleanings.  Vaccinating a pet annually has been shown to be harmful to your pet and to put a pet down under anesthesia for a teeth cleaning that is not needed is asking for trouble.  

I am not saying for you to stay away from these clinics.  There are many good, kind-hearted vets that work at these facilities.  But, these same vets have to follow the corporate guidelines or they will be removed from the system.  Do your homework, ask questions about all recommendations and empower yourself to become your pet’s guardian.  We can no longer assume that your pet’s health care is the clinic’s primary focus.