Veterinary Care For All
Companion animals provide wonderful benefits to their guardians, as their guardians can attest and research confirms. They provide social, emotional, and physical benefits to the humans who love them. The benefits of animal companionship can be especially important for the marginalized, disadvantaged, and homeless. Companion animals can help people experiencing economic hardship or social marginalization deal with the stresses, depression, and instability they may encounter. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased both unemployment and pet adoptions, meaning there are more animals than ever filling the crucial role of providing support to those who need it the most. Companion animals do so much for us and ask so little in return. The least we can do is provide them with the veterinary care they need to keep them healthy and happy. Unfortunately, some guardians lack the means to care for their companion animals as they would like to. This is where community veterinary care programs come in.
Community veterinary programs seek to provide quality care to companion animals in underserved communities. They host mobile clinics to serve guardians who lack reliable transportation and provide services at low or no cost to guardians for whom traditional veterinary care costs are prohibitive. They aim to provide guardians with a positive experience that will make them more likely to seek needed care for their companion animals in the future.
In a recent paper, researchers studied two community veterinary clinics operating in Asheville, North Carolina. One was a mobile clinic, operating twice a month in underserved neighborhoods and offering services for free on a walk-in basis. The other was a brick-and-mortar clinic open once a month and offering services at low cost, with animal transportation available. The clinics offered services ranging from injury care and illness visits to vaccinations and medical grooming. Together the clinics served nearly 100 animals each month, half of whom had never received veterinary care before. The fact that they reached people who had never availed themselves of veterinary services before is a good indication that the clinics were successful at overcoming significant barriers to care, like high cost and lack of transportation. However, to assure compliance with care instructions and encourage continued utilization of veterinary care, the clinics needed to go beyond providing accessible service — they needed to provide a positive experience.
Guardians who have a good experience with veterinary care, one in which they feel respected and empowered, are more likely to comply with follow-up care instructions and to seek needed veterinary care in the future. The guardians served by the two clinics in the study rated their experiences very positively, and the researchers chalked up the clinics’ success to their approach centered on communication, empathy, and cultural competence.
Good communication in this setting requires collaborative decision-making between the veterinarian and the guardian. Care providers in this study approached care decisions as power-balanced negotiations with guardians, rather than the more paternalistic approach common in veterinary care. Empathy requires that the veterinarian listens and shows compassion, earning the guardian’s trust. Guardians accessing these programs reported that they felt the care providers spent adequate time with them and understood them. Cultural competence requires that the veterinary staff have attitudes, awareness, and skills to bridge cultural divides. For instance, both clinics studied had bilingual staff present in order to overcome linguistic barriers.
The successful strategies of these two clinics should serve as a blueprint for others. By providing care that is accessible and affordable, they were able to reach members of their community who had not previously had access. By doing so in a way that was respectful, empathetic, and culturally sensitive, they earned the trust that will have their patients returning for needed care in the future. Because of these and other community veterinary programs, companion animals can continue to support the humans that love them, and do so in good health.