The one fundamental difference between the two services, which accounts for many of the perceived differences in performance, is, of course, that the NHS provides treatment that is free at the point of delivery, whilst veterinary treatment is privately funded. Anyone taking their pet to a vet must either pay the vet’s fees out of their own pockets or through a pet insurance policy. As the vast majority of single consultations are likely to cost less than the policy excess, the reality is that the fees will invariably be met by the owner. This funding difference between the publicly funded NHS and the privately funded veterinary service may well mean that, because pet owners are directly responsible for payment of the vet’s fees, they are less likely to visit the surgery for minor issues than an NHS patient might be to visit his or her GP. There are three other significant differences between the two services.
Although there are specialist vets, they are relatively limited in number and most vets in general practice can be expected to deliver a wide range of treatments and procedures, including performing operations. This provides for continuity of care for all but the most serious of conditions, which is simply not available within the NHS, where conditions of any significance are likely to be referred on for specialist care.
Secondly, although it is possible for people to take out private health insurance, this tends to cover less serious conditions and illnesses. Critical, life-threatening illnesses are invariably referred by the private health provider to the NHS. Conversely, pet insurance policies can provide for all of the treatments necessary, including operative procedures, up to the limit of the cover provided by the policy.
The final significant difference is the fact that it is the owner who takes the treatment decisions on behalf of the pet whereas, in the case of the NHS, it is the patient who personally decides whether to consult a doctor and whether to accept or decline a particular medication, course of treatment or operation. Because humans are able to communicate feelings of ill health and/or pain more readily than animals, they are more likely to seek rapid medical advice than the owner of a pet at the onset of a health problem, which places additional strain on GP practices.
The crucial funding difference between the services makes it impossible to carry out a meaningful comparison of the two. A service that provides patient access regardless of means is always likely to be oversubscribed, whilst one that remains privately funded will inevitably result in many patients going untreated. Anyone who has a much loved pet should therefore ensure that it does not have to go without necessary veterinary care by comparing pet insurance and taking out a plan. Whilst this may not cover the cost of every appointment, it will cover the cost of what may be extremely expensive treatment in the event that the pet develops a critical illness or is involved in a serious accident requiring expensive veterinary treatment.