A substantial number of American pet owners live in underserved communities, which could make them unable to access or afford (or both) the veterinary care their pets need.
The inability to access veterinary care is not only a financial problem. Numerous barriers to veterinary care exist, including cultural/language-related issues, veterinarian–client communication, and transportation.
To help address these barriers, many communities have implemented some form of community veterinary medicine programs. The role of veterinarians working in underserved community clinics is pivotal in fostering positive interactions with pet owners and can impact an owner’s willingness to seek veterinary care for their pet in the future. Learning more about the quality and impact of these programs could improve the lives of many pets and people.
The perceptions and experiences of all pet owners who accessed veterinary care through one of two community-based programs in North Carolina were gathered through an online, anonymous survey or phone-based survey.
The survey included demographic data (i.e., gender, employment status, household income, age, ethnicity, race, and preferred language) and questions about the pet obtaining veterinary care.
Potential barriers to care were assessed along with owners' perception of the care and communication they received during their last visit to the clinic.
Questions included perceptions of respect, empathy, communication, and consideration of their culture and beliefs, and asked participants to rate each item on a 3-point scale (good, neutral, and poor).
Participants were also asked to indicate how important the veterinary care was in helping them keep their pet using a 3-point scale (very important, moderately important, and not important).
The two programs assessed included Asheville Humane Society (AHS) mobile veterinary care clinic and the stationary Asheville Humane Society (AHS) Affordable Pet Care Clinic.
Nearly 100 clients across the two programs responded and completed the survey. Participants were primarily White, non-Hispanic females with an annual household income of less than $20,000. A considerable number were unemployed (around 40%). Most respondents (around 70%) were dog owners.
For both locations, the main reason pet owners visited the clinic was to obtain preventive care for their pet, followed by non-emergency sick care.
Over half (54%) of the mobile clinic clients had never received veterinary care and 42.9% of the stationary clinic clients had not.
Most pet owners accessing care from both clinics rated their experiences with the programs highly positive:
- Approximately 97% felt respected
- Approximately 97% believed the staff genuinely cared about them and their pet
- 84-98% rated the quality of various aspects of the interaction and communication with veterinarians and team as “good”
Areas for improvement (although all still rated positively by over 80% of respondents) included veterinarian teams’ discussion of treatment options, treatments/procedures, and costs.
For both programs, most owners (87%) reported that the care they received was very important in helping them keep their pet.
Participants were also asked to indicate what challenges they had obtaining the care they needed. For the stationary clinic, the most common barrier was financial, followed by transportation issues while the most common barrier noted by mobile clinic clients related to uncertainty about the mobile unit's schedule and hours
Client experience, including effective communication, empathy, and cultural competence, is an important component of high-quality care in community veterinary medicine programs.
The results from this study suggest that it’s possible to create free and low-cost community programs that satisfy clients' needs to be heard, valued, and respected. For example, over 90% of clients from both programs reported feeling their veterinarian respected their culture/beliefs and recognized the role their pet played in their lives. Most owners also reported feeling their veterinarian wanted to hear their opinion, discussed options and recommendations, and included them in the entire veterinary visit.
Results also show that these veterinary programs meet an important need in the community, helping keep pets with their families.
There is a common misconception that providing discounted or free veterinary services will take paying clients away from nearby veterinary hospitals. This study, like many before it, shows that most people accessing free or reduced-cost care for their pets have never been to a veterinarian before.
As the first source of veterinary care for many, it is important that community-based veterinary medicine programs ensure a positive experience for clients to increase the chances that they seek care for their pets again in the future.
Community veterinary programs are encouraged to consider and measure client experience as an indicator of program quality and success, and to make sure they are laying a positive foundation for future veterinary care in the clients they serve.