You may have heard the phrase “defensive medicine” used during the recent health care debate in the United States.
Defensive medicine describes the situation where a doctor decides a patient’s care not simply based on what is best for that patient but also considers a perceived need to cover his or her white-coated backside in case things don’t go well.
Defensive medicine is not limited to the human health care system.
Veterinarians often fall into this mindset as well.
Consider the following scenario:
A previously healthy, well-taken-care-of adult dog shows up in the clinic with a relatively mild case of diarrhea. The vet performs a physical exam and uncovers nothing remarkable.
- the dog is not dehydrated
- his abdomen feels normal
- he doesn’t have a fever and
- he appears to be bright and feeling like himself
The veterinarian will probably want to examine a sample of feces under the microscope to look for parasites or abnormal bacteria. If everything looks good under the microscope, the vet is left with a decision to make.
Option A: The conservative approach
Many dogs with these symptoms have a simple case of gastroenteritis, often because they ate something that they shouldn’t have.
Treating them with a bland diet and a medication to help clear up the diarrhea is a perfectly reasonable approach, even though a definitive diagnosis has not been reached.
Option B: The CYA approach
Gastroenteritis is a strong possibility. However, a long list of other diseases, some of which can be very serious, cannot be ruled out without more diagnostic testing to gather as much information as possible from the outset.
- blood work
- abdominal x-rays, and other laboratory tests
Which is the correct approach?
Frankly, both options have their pros and cons, and neither is ultimately right or wrong. The secret to navigating these types of situations is COMMUNICATION.
In a perfect world, veterinarians in these types of situations should describe all the options available to owners, including their risks, benefits, and costs. Then, the owners can then make educated decisions about the right choices for them under their own unique circumstances.
This is exactly what many veterinarians do, but alas we do not live in a perfect world.
The key is to have a choice
Some vets get into the habit of routinely offering only “Option B.”
Should something go wrong, which is a possibility with either option, it is always easier to defend oneself by saying “I did everything I could think of” than “in my judgment, more testing was not necessary.”
So, if you are in a situation where you think that your vet is only giving you “Option B,” speak up.
Most doctors are perfectly willing to approach a problem differently as long as it doesn’t compromise your dog’s comfort and chances of recovering.
The trade-off is that you, your dog’s guardian, have to take responsibility for the decisions that you make.
What if you choose “Option A” and your dog’s condition doesn’t improve? It is time to go back to the vet and move on to “Option B.”
What Makes a Good Veterinarian: Veterinarians Are People First