Students, Practitioners Studying and Following Veterinary Family Practice Model

The classes and the approach to business “promotes a bond-centered practice,” said Richard Timmins, DVM, director of the Center for Animals in Society at UC Davis, who spearheaded the program. Unlike traditional clinics, veterinary family practitioners say that they take cues from clients about the pet’s family role to develop lifelong care programs and justify regular check-ups, which enable a proactive approach to wellness. From nutritional management to counseling clients about ways to gently incorporate pets into an established family or vice versa, family veterinarians spend more time talking with clients and assume a larger role as educators, Timmins said.

The change marks a departure from general practitioner, a term that may have never been applicable, Timmins said. “We have special skills. The term general practitioner really doesn’t apply.”

Before retiring from private practice to consult, Peter Weinstein, DVM, followed the family practice model in California, and he likens the comparison of general practitioners and family practitioners to Jiffy Lube and BMW dealerships. “Pets [can] become serviced items opposed to veterinarians taking a holistic (whole animal) approach to their treatment,” he said. The family practice concept, which he said is “still in an infant state,” fosters a closer relationship with clients akin to those between families and pediatricians. “A small but increasing number of veterinarians are following this model across the U.S.,” he added.

To effect an industry-wide change, veterinarians must switch perception of their role as repair people – healing the sick – to educators, doctors who protect patients from preventable illnesses. “As veterinarians we are trained to fix what’s broken, but we’re trying to change that. We will always handle traumas, but we can do a better job preventing problems if we [enhance our roles] as educators,” Timmins added. “When I worked in private practice the most important preventative thing that I did was vaccines.”

In the future, “this could have a huge impact on the way that clients look at investments in their four-legged family members,” Weinstein said. “It’s a couple of steps up from where we are now to where we want to be in the future.”

Courses, which fall under the category of "Doctoring," will expose UC Davis students to specific skills that differentiate family practitioners from general practitioners, such as risk assessment, leadership, information management and a lifespan approach to health care systems. On an operational level, these graduates may suggest the same protocols, but they will go into greater detail to explain suggestions or recommendations. “We help clients understand the importance of tests to whatever level they want,” Weinstein added. “We want to enhance the comfort level for pet owners so there should never be any rush.”

In terms of dialogue, students and established practitioners often shy away from the idea of telling clients that they “should” do something. “They want to give options,” Timmins said, “but if you give the client all of the options you can confuse them,” he added. For example, when a patient presents with a fracture many doctors would explain that the injury could be plated, pinned or cast. Instead, Timmins advises veterinarians to encourage clients to follow the best option, using the word should. “We need to establish ourselves as the advocate for the patient and someone who supports the client,” Timmins explained.

To facilitate this process, doctors must learn what role animals play in the family, Timmins said. Is the pet mainly responsible for dispensing love and affection, a symbol of prestige (a rare breed), a working dog for the blind, hunting dog, etc., and gauge a client’s level of attachment, and what we can do as veterinarians to enhance that attachment, he added.