The Vet’s View: Pet Insurance

Pet insurance is a relatively new product in Australia and its’ uptake is lower than in other countries. Many Australian veterinarians do not routinely discuss pet insurance with their clients. BCF Ultrasound spoke to Jennifer Judd BVMS about the topic of pet insurance in Australia to see how, as a private practitioner, she felt about the subject. 

Jennifer Judd is a veterinary graduate of Glasgow University and has worked in private practice since 2009. Starting out in mixed practice in Northern Ireland & Scotland, Jennifer then moved to South Australia to work in small animal practice. Jennifer has a Graduate Certificate in Small Animal Abdominal Ultrasonography from the University of Melbourne.

“One of the most frustrating things about being at the mercy of a client’s finances is having to prioritise one test over another when often it is necessary to do both.”

BCF Ultrasound: What are the advantages of treating insured pets from a veterinarian’s point of view?

J. Judd: The main advantage in treating insured pets is having the ability to perform all of the necessary diagnostics in order to reach an accurate diagnosis as quickly as possible.  For example, on many occasions multiple imaging modalities are required such as ultrasound, x-rays and endoscopy.  A good example of this is being unable to see past gas on an ultrasound.  In this case, taking an x-ray can help to clarify the findings. This gives a much clearer overall picture and reduces the risk of over interpretation or missing things.  One of the most frustrating things about being at the mercy of a client’s finances is having to prioritise one test over another when often it is necessary to do both.  This can be incredibly stressful for the clinician and also frustrating for the pet owner when we cannot give them a definitive diagnosis in a timely fashion.  The other benefit of treating insured pets is having the option to give the gold standard and safest care possible.  Examples of this would be pre-anaesthetic bloodwork prior to surgery or choosing newer, often more expensive drugs which carry less side-effects than the cheaper alternatives.  It is much more rewarding as a veterinarian to be able to provide the best level of care possible for our patients. One of the most difficult parts of the job is seeing pet owners who obviously cherish their animal but are severely limited by finances.

 

BCF Ultrasound: Compared with overseas markets (particularly the UK), Australia has a low uptake of pet insurance. What have your observations been since working in Australia? And why do you think uptake is so low?

J. Judd: My general perception of this is that it is changing for the better now.  Certainly when I first arrived in Australia I was aware that less clients had or were interested in pet insurance.  Now it seems as if there is better uptake of insurance.  Of course, this has a lot do to with demographics and as a locum I certainly noticed a difference in insurance uptake between certain areas, with lower socioeconomic areas tending to have the poorest uptake.  One comment I used to hear a lot was that people felt insurance would increase the cost of veterinary care and allow vets to over-service in order to generate more revenue.  In my experience, the vast majority of vets are honest, hardworking professionals and really just want the freedom to be able to provide the best care possible in what is already a stressful and emotionally taxing job.  At the end of the day, veterinarians are obliged to follow a strict code of conduct which includes not over-servicing or performing unnecessary tests so this is already regulated.  Insurance simply allows us to do the best job possible.  Client expectations are continually rising and we need insurance in order to support this.  Gone are the days of James Herriot.  Pets are no longer just animals. They are considered by many as family members, and if we insure everything else in our lives, why not our living, breathing pets?

“Insurance simply allows us to do the best job possible.”

 

BCF Ultrasound: In the UK and Ireland is it common practice for the vet to discuss insurance at the time of the first vaccination. Is it common practice to do so in Australia?

J. Judd: I always discuss and recommend insurance at the time of the first vaccination.  If the client is already thinking about insuring their pet then this is the best time to do so.  This is because there are generally no pre-existing conditions at this stage.  Even a simple skin rash in a puppy may prevent the treatment of allergies being covered later down the track as it would be classed as pre-existing.  Furthermore, there is often a waiting period when insurance is first taken out, so the sooner the better really. If possible they should choose a “whole of life” policy. Some conditions are life long and this will cover them for the duration of the animal’s life, whereas other policies tend to only cover for that specific condition until your renewal date then they exclude it. Ultimately the choice is a personal decision and I do have many clients who prefer not to insure their pets – but it is a good opportunity to discuss the facts so they can make a more informed decision.

 

“The vast majority of vets are honest, hardworking professionals and really just want the freedom to be able to provide the best care possible in what is already a stressful and emotionally taxing job”

 

BCF Ultrasound: Do you think that some veterinarians may not discuss pet insurance with owners because they worry about being in breach of financial services legislation?

J. Judd: I think as long as insurance is discussed in very broad terms, without mention of specific insurers or their policies, then there is no issue.  At the end of the day, I tell clients who ask for specific recommendations that there are far too many insurance companies to mention nowadays – it is best if they do their own research to find a policy that is right for them.   The “mere referral exemption” of the Corporations Act allows us to provide some brochures of various insurance companies, however I always encourage my clients to have a look around.

 

BCF Ultrasound: Do veterinarians need more education about the legal obligation of pet insurance and exemptions that apply to them? Do you think clinics should train their staff about pet insurance? i.e. how to discuss it with clients without breaching the legal obligations?

J. Judd: We do need more education on this subject.  In the 6 years I have been practicing in Australia, it is not something that I can say has ever been discussed.  I think clinics should train their support staff in how to discuss insurance without breaching the legislation also.

“It is heartbreaking to see animals being euthanised for potentially curable conditions.”

 

BCF Ultrasound: Overall, how does pet insurance affect your day-to-day job?

J. Judd: Pet insurance definitely improves my day to day job and professional satisfaction.  As I have already mentioned, practicing veterinary medicine is a stressful and emotionally draining career.  A lot of this stress can be relieved by being able to provide the best level of care to our patients as possible.  The stress of not being able to do this can be overwhelming at times.  When a patient fails to improve, there is always the question of having missed something because certain tests were not performed.  In some situations, the diagnosis is clear  – in the case of intestinal foreign body obstruction for example.  The patient can be cured with surgery, however this is major surgery which comes at a significant cost.  It is heartbreaking to see animals being euthanised for potentially curable conditions.

 

To find out more about pet insurance, read these resources today: 

A veterinarian’s guide to pet health insurance from the AVA Pet Insurance Taskforce

The Ins and Outs of Pet Insurance by Veterinary Defence Association Australia

“More Australians paying for pet insurance, new survey shows” from Adelaide Now

The value of pet insurance by Magdoline Awad, PetSure in the Australian Veterinary Journal

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