The spectrum of care in veterinary medicine: Permission to break up with the gold standard

by Kristi Fender


In a perfect world, veterinary clients would spare no expense for their pets health, and every diagnosis would be met with top-tier care. But this is reality, and veterinary teams have to figure out how to balance optimal care with pet ownersfinancial constraints on a daily basis. 

The spectrum of care, as it’s come to be known, is quickly becoming one of the hottest of hot topics in veterinary research and analysis. At a 2024 VMX session in Orlando, Jules Benson, BVSc, MRCVS, and Emily Tincher, DVM, of Nationwide pet insurance shared insights that can help veterinarians (and the companies that serve them) ensure that every pet receives quality care, tailored to their specific needs and their owners’ cost considerations. 

‘Clinical empathy’: Not your average empathy 

One of the most important parts of a spectrum of care approach, according to Benson and Tincher, is “clinical empathy,” a concept with over 1.5 million publications in human healthcare that’s been linked to fewer medical errors, fewer malpractice claims, better outcomes, and higher satisfaction among healthcare providers. “It’s an actual superpower,” Tincher said. 

Clinical empathy is different from personal distress empathy, which involves absorbing the emotions of those in distress and often leads to compassion fatigue in healthcare workers, the speakers explained. Clinical empathy, in contrast, involves a three-step approach:  

  1. Understand the pet family’s goals. 
  2. Communicate evidence-based options. 
  3. Act by adjusting the treatment plan accordingly. 

Tincher noted that some veterinary teams may already be engaging in clinical empathy instinctively, and they simply need to articulate it when interacting with clients. “We are empathetic in our profession, but we don’t always say it out loud,” she said. 

Letting go of the gold standard 

Benson voiced the frustration of many veterinarians who for years have heard that they shouldn’t “x-ray clients’ wallets” and should always propose the optimal treatment plan first—while facing clients day after day who can’t afford the “Cadillac” but nonetheless care dearly for their pets.  

“No one wants to be offered the most expensive option first,” Benson said. “We need to give teams permission not to lead with the gold standard.” 

The key is to understand what kind of pet owner you’re dealing with. Clients tend to fall into one of three categories based on what they most value: 

  • Choice: These clients want all the options. They’re highly focused on outcomes, and they don’t want to be referred to another veterinarian—because they chose their pet’s doctor very intentionally. 
  • Convenience: These families tend to have busy lives and want the option that’s going to cause the least complication to their already packed schedules. They don’t care as much about saving money. 
  • Cost. Finally, cost-driven pet owners don’t want to (or can’t) spend top dollar. They are sensitive to feeling judged, they don’t want to go into debt, and they will likely pass on diagnostics that don’t have a direct impact on their pet’s treatment path. 

When veterinarians use step one above—understand the pet family’s goals—they can get a good idea of which group their client belongs to as they begin to discuss treatment options. 

A 3-2-1 path to care 

A tiered framework respects the pet owner’s position without compromising the quality of care, Benson and Tincher said. Think of it as the “3-2-1 approach” to the spectrum of care.  

  1. Identify three care plan options: basic, intermediate, and advanced. (Benson noted that this three-option approach is well-studied in human healthcare and has much evidence in its support.)
  2. Communicate and confirm: Share the recommendations with the client, and verbally confirm which option they choose.
  3. Document the recommendations in the patient’s medical record, along with the client’s choice. (This will support the doctor’s position in case of a legal challenge down the road.)

A role for industry 

Brand managers, marketing executives and other key players in animal health can help veterinary practices navigate the spectrum of care successfully. By providing tools and resources that enable the practice of clinical empathy, align treatment plans with pet owners’ values, and meet pets’ health needs within owners’ financial boundaries, the industry as a whole becomes more resilient and compassionate. Even more importantly, pets get the care they need and deserve. 

 Kristi Fender is associate director of content and PR for S&A in Overland Park, Kansas. Want to explore how your healthcare brand can support the spectrum of care? Reach out today—we’d love to have a conversation! 

Topics:animal healththought leadershuman-animal bondveterinary medicinepet care