Why does my veterinarian charge me more for an emergency visit?
When you are unexpectedly sick, you call your physician for an appointment. Sometimes they have a time available for you, but when they don’t, they refer you to the emergency room. And we all sigh and make our trek to the local ER. We hand the receptionist at the ER our insurance card, we make our copay, and we take a seat and wait (sometimes hours) until we can be seen. And while pet insurance is becoming much more prominent, it still does not cover the majority of most hospitals’ patients. So while the trip to the ER for us humans doesn’t seem so drastically different in the terms of money (because we can just hand them our insurance card and pay the slightly higher copay), it often can be significantly more expensive for our uninsured pets to be seen. It’s not that your trip to the ER didn’t cost a lot more than a trip to your doctor’s office, it’s just that you are not seeing this difference, your insurance company is.
A general practice veterinary hospital functions in a very similar way to that of your general practitioner. When your pet is ill you call your veterinarian, and the receptionist will assign your pet a time to be seen if there is a time available. And this is where veterinary medicine greatly differs from human medicine (most of the time); If that receptionist does not have a time available and your pet should not wait until the following day, he/she may offer you to be seen on an emergency basis. So what does THAT mean? It simply means that the doctor is fully booked, but is willing to squeeze your pet in in order to save you from having to make a trip to the emergency room. Sometimes this service does come with an additional fee attached to the bill, or a more expensive examination charge. Many clients are not pleased with this fee and trust me, we all know this and we hate to have to charge it. But the reality is simply that squeezing you in generally costs a vet hospital more than you realize and normally is still less expensive than what most emergency hospitals would be charging (thus it is really saving the client money).
When your vet does have you bring your pet down on an emergency basis, at times this may mean making their other patients wait if your pet is critical, which unfortunately does negatively affect some of those other clients’ view of the clinic and sometimes may even cause some of those clients to leave without being seen, thus decreasing the income of the hospital. Other times you and your pet may be made to wait (if your pet is stable) until the doctor has a few moments in between patients. More often than not, even in this scenario, it will have a negative impact on the patients to be seen after you as it puts the doctor behind. And even if those clients wait to be seen, it may affect their decision to return, reducing the future income of the hospital.
Frequently this service will also result in doctors, technicians, receptionists, and even cleaning staff staying past their shifts. And while some veterinarians are paid on salary, many are not and their supporting staff is typically paid hourly. Which means your hospital could be paying 2-5 staff members to stay late either to finish with an emergency or to finish the appointments that are running late due to an emergency. This alone may cost the clinic considerably more than a typical emergency fee.
Other times your veterinarian may tell you that they are not able to see your pet and recommend you bring your pet to the nearest emergency hospital. They are doing this for your pet’s safety. If your veterinarian is already fully booked with appointments and is already dealing with several emergencies on top of that (which is typically the case) they may not feel that they would have adequate time to properly care for your pet. They don’t want your pet’s life at risk because they were busy placing an IV catheter in another critical patient when your pet is brought in just having been hit by a car. In that type of scenario, they are only suggesting what would be best for your pet.
So why do veterinarians even offer the emergency exam instead of just referring to the local emergency clinic? Because they know how expensive emergency hospitals are and also they know most clients would prefer their beloved family member to be seen by a doctor they know and trust. They aren’t raising the price for an emergency visit to take advantage of you when your pet is in need of assistance, but rather to try to maintain the cost of operation of an independent small business.