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VMD vs. MD: How Far Apart Are We?

September 29, 2010 By: Dr. K Category: General, Opinion

I received one of the best compliments of my professional career this week when a client said he “wished his doctor was as good” as me. Wow.  His comment got me thinking: What makes me so different from his MD? Did his MD fail to engage him, encourage him to speak, make eye contact? I certainly am not that fabulous. I wondered where his MD fell short. I thanked him and told him my motto to veterinary medicine is to “Laugh so you don’t cry.” It’s important to keep it light when you can or you’ll end up crushed by the burden of the profession.

My quantum leap in thought took me back to college when I began as a biology major and a pre-medical student. That’s right. I coveted an emergency room physician position.  I had done work in an emergency room as a senior in high school and knew medicine was my destiny. Medicine was my destiny, just not human medicine. As a person who has seen both sides of the coin, I can draw some informed comparisons and contrasts.

I think the greatest agreement between the two fields comes in our education. Both veterinarians and doctors are taught how to diagnose and treat diseases all over the spectrum. From simple skin diseases to complex endocrine diseases, we learn them all. Veterinarians are problem-solvers most like ER Physicians. We must be prepared for anything that walks in the door and see a variety of cases throughout the day. Both vets and doctors (at least the good ones) must possess terrific “people skills” as medicine serves the public.

The biggest contrast between the two professions is probably directed by litigation and finances. A veterinarian’s pursuit of diagnostics and treatment is frequently limited due to cost.  I often find myself saying, “If we only can do one test, then I pick this one because….” I fantasize what my job could be like if I had unlimited access to blood tests and imaging. Bliss! Fear of litigation and the financial ability to perform diagnostics drives physicians to order a battery of tests. This is no indictment of MDs, on the contrary, I would find myself in the same situation had my career aspirations not done an about face in college!

Additionally, the high specialization in human medicine greatly contrasts with the average small animal general practitioner’s position. A specialist has a depth of knowledge in their niche that cannot be rivaled. In the span of a day, an endocrinologist may see five diabetics, two patients with thyroid disease, and several patients with obesity. My day consists of surgery, dental extractions, diagnosing heart disease, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and dermatologic disease all while managing a dog hit by a car and a rabies suspect. My breadth of knowledge adds spice to my career and keeps me fresh. The surge in veterinary specialists is slowly changing the profession’s focus but the vast majority of veterinarians still engage in the many facets of veterinary medicine.

Despite the differences one thing rings true: Good veterinarians and physicians care deeply about their patients’ health.

2 Comments to “VMD vs. MD: How Far Apart Are We?”


  1. As a veterinary technician, I get great satisfaction ending each day knowing I helped someone take better care of their cat, and know that an educated client is then able to be the best caregiver, too.

    It is true, good vets and good physicians care deeply for their patients health, and I think that good staff magnifies that. I am fortunate to have a physician with great staff and that is the extra touch there, too.

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  2. I hate, with a passion, talks about “treatment plans” and haggling over which tests and treatments are essential and which can be postponed. Then I remind myself that as a veterinarian I have the power to start treatment of a life-threatening disease like cancer on the day it is diagnosed. I practice in Canada, and the reality for human patients here is probably quite different than in the US, where I have lived. (I personally am not a proponent of socialized medicine as a concept, but in my experience your family doctor and their knowledge and thoroughness is what makes the difference – much more so than the type of health care system.) Be that as it may, our profession offers the paradox that we are both doctors and merchants – but given the owner’s financial ability and willingness, we can do far more and in far less time than MDs. And the fact that we have to choose carefully which tests to run can help make us better doctors.

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