What do pet families want? (And how do we communicate it?)

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Veterinarians are often taught that we should present the gold standard option first, followed by other options. But new research by pet insurance provider Nationwide and Mind Genomics Advisors suggests that most pet owners do not want their options presented in this way: Identifying whether the pet family’s primary concern is cost, convenience, or optionality is key to finding the “best fit."

Cost, convenience, or optionality?

As part of the research conducted, Nationwide surveyed 1,000 pet owners across many demographics, with the goal of uncovering subconscious drivers for pet healthcare choices. Regardless of demographics including age, educational background, race, ethnicity, and income level, three distinct communication preferences were identified:

  • Cost: Cost-conscientious pet families whose decisions are primarily influenced by their budgetary limitations;
  • Convenience: Pet families whose decisions are primarily influenced by convenience, such as wanting to perform as much testing as possible in a single visit to reduce the number of appointments;
  • Optionality: Pet families who want to know all their options and discuss the pros and cons with the veterinary team to make the best possible decision for their individual pet and circumstances.

These groups were independent of demographics, reminding veterinary professionals that we cannot predict a pet owner’s preferences based on appearance alone.

Clients assume the first option is best

An important finding from the research is that the order that options are presented in matters. The way we present options to clients can have a large influence on their decisionmaking.

Many clients assume the first option presented is the one their veterinarian thinks best. If the gold standard is always presented first, owners may feel pressured to follow this treatment plan or fear they will be judged for not electing that option. Ultimately, this may lead them to select the gold standard in the moment but to either regret that decision later or not return to the veterinary clinic for follow-up or continued care because of the negative feelings around their choice.

Instead, veterinary teams must establish a relationship with each pet family and work to identify if their primary concern is cost, convenience, or optionality, then present the options in an empathetic and nonjudgmental way.

The first option presented should be the one that the veterinarian feels is most likely to be the best fit for the pet family at the time. The gold standard option can still be presented to ensure that clients are aware of the full range of options, but it may be the last option on the list in certain circumstances, such as those with significant financial limitations, and presented more as an educational opportunity than a forceful recommendation.

Nationwide embraces spectrum of care

The Nationwide team is passionate about encouraging a spectrum of care approach and at VMX 2023, they launched www.spectrum-of-care.com, a resource for veterinary teams to learn more about this concept and the communication tools needed to succeed.

“Our founding principle, set forth 40 years ago, is to help more pets receive more care,” said Emily M. Tincher, DVM, senior director of veterinary relations at Nationwide. Based on research from the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition, it became clear that at best, 50% of owned dogs and cats receive annual care. The most common barrier to care was financial. “As a financial institution, we felt we could be part of the solution,” said Tincher.

She noted that “there are a lot of reasons we’ve been trained to think that advanced-level care is the best option.” But Nationwide’s market research with pet families has found that what is traditionally considered gold standard care often clashes with what pet owners want for their pets. This raises the question of how veterinary teams can meet their customers—the pet family—where they are and serve them in the best way possible.

In response to this question, Nationwide’s Innovation and Veterinary Relations teams have worked to pilot novel research into client communication preferences, contribute to evidence-based medicine using years of available pet claims and policy data, and equip veterinary professionals with communication tools to help serve more pets and pet families through the spectrum of care approach.

“It’s amazing to have the advanced level of care we do,” said Tincher, “But how can we communicate the range of options from basic to advanced that’s nonjudgmental and lets families choose what they want?”

In the next column, we will dive into specific communication tools and tips that veterinary teams can employ when providing a spectrum of care to their patients and clients.

Kate Boatright, VMD, is a small animal veterinarian, speaker, and author in western Pennsylvania. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2013 and has worked in rural small animal general practice and emergency clinics ever since. She is passionate about inciting positive change in the profession through mentorship and servant leadership in organized veterinary medicine. She writes a monthly column for NEWStat on the role of the spectrum of care in improving outcomes in clinical practice.

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