When Should a General Practice Vet Refer Patients to a Specialist?

General practice veterinarians (GPs) are often faced with the question of which services they should provide themselves and which should be left to board-certified specialists. The growing availability of specialty care, the expectations of many pet owners for advanced care resembling that which they receive, the expanding availability of new and more technologically sophisticated interventions, and many other factors all add to the pressure to limit services in general practice and refer more patients to specialists. 

On the other hand, many pet owners struggle to find and afford veterinary care of any kind, much less the most advanced. The concept of a spectrum of care has gained momentum in veterinary medicine largely in acknowledgment of this and in recognition of the fact that intensive, technologically sophisticated, and expensive healthcare may not always be available and may not even the best option for a given patient and client. I was privileged to be invited to contribute to one of the first attempts to characterize the concept of a spectrum of care in the veterinary literature, and it has gained significant momentum since (e.g. 1, 2)

One element to the spectrum-of-care concept is allowing flexibility in what care is provided and by whom while still providing effective, evidence-based treatment. General practice vets are very experienced at the art of providing care within the many constraints of time, money, and expertise available in private practice.

Unfortunately, sometimes both GPs and specialists, especially some in academic settings, mistake the most intensive and advanced specialty care for the best care, or even for the only acceptable kind of care. This makes it harder for GPs to meet the needs of their patients and clients within the inevitable limitations of the “real world,” that is, practice outside of universities or highly affluent communities.

I have been fortunate enough to work for many years at a practice where I was able to learn and provide advanced care options often considered the exclusive province of specialists, such as endoscopy, chemotherapy, and ultrasound. While some specialists have objected to this, many have understood the importance of avoiding rigid distinctions between primary and specialty care in order to effectively meet the needs of all our patients and clients.

Recently, I have developed the impression that newer veterinary school graduates are more reluctant that earlier generations to provide such advanced care tasks. Whether this is a generational change or a result of the messages they are receiving in school, such a trend could potentially further limit the availability of high-quality care and exacerbate both the shortage of veterinary services and the dissatisfaction driving vets from clinical practice.

I recently wrote an editorial for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) intended to explore the issue of specialty referral, and to hopefully advance discussions within the profession around this subject. This is based solely on my own experiences in practice, and my understanding of evidence-based medicine and the spectrum of care concept, so it is only my thoughts on the subject, not an objective, data-driven analysis. Nevertheless, I hope this will provide useful context and food for thought to GPs and specialists, and perhaps to pet owners as well.

McKenzie, BA. Do it yourself or send for help? Considering specialty referral from a general practitioner perspective. J Amer Vet Med Assoc. 2024; Online early. doi: 10.2460/javma.23.11.0612

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3 Responses to When Should a General Practice Vet Refer Patients to a Specialist?

  1. Angela Chouinard says:

    The one time I was sent on a referral was for damage to my cat’s eye. My regular vet was very experienced but she was afraid it was cancer. That turned out not to be the case but the veterinary ophthalmologist I went to was worth the time and money. He gave me a detailed explanation of the damage and how the eye had tried to heal and then gave me detailed instructions on how to watch for future problems. Had it necessitated more care he already had examined the cat and would have been able to tell me what would be involved. My regular vet on other occasions had given advanced care so I can’t say she was one who immediately opted for a specialist.

  2. Rebecca Carter says:

    As a trainer, I hear all too frequently from clients that their vet suggested some sort of “common wisdom” strategy that is actually actively harmful for even simple behavioural issues, or that their in-clinic puppy classes are run by one of their (not qualified in behaviour) vet nurses actively spreading misinformation and long-outdated harsh methods with no oversight. Learning that the majority of vet schools don’t even have a behaviour specialist on staff goes some way to explain this… I know veterinary behaviourists are globally few and far between, and extremely expensive, but I sorely wish the limitations of most vets as to the scope of modern behavioural science and training best practices were as front of mind as they seem to be on the medical side of things.

  3. Michael says:

    As a pet owner, this article really opened my eyes to the complex decisions vets make regarding referrals to specialists. It highlights the importance of balancing advanced care with practical constraints and reminds us that the best care isn’t always the most intensive. Appreciating vets who navigate these challenges daily!

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