Veterinary Care Costs Are Out Of Control

William Grimes has the best piece about health care costs you’ll read this week. It’s about pets:

Older pets like Tina are benefiting from advances in veterinary medicine that have accelerated in the past two to three years, raising not only the hopes of pet owners but also tough new questions about extending or saving an animal’s life, and how much to spend in doing so.

A long list of cancers, urinary-tract disorders, kidney ailments, joint failures and even canine dementia can now be diagnosed and treated, with the prospect of a cure or greatly improved health, thanks to imaging technology, better drugs, new surgical techniques and holistic approaches like acupuncture.

“What’s new is the sheer number of approaches to treat problems that, not too long ago, would have meant the end of the line,” said Dr. Julie Meadows, a specialist in feline geriatric medicine at the veterinary medical teaching hospital at the University of California, Davis.

This is why I think most discussion of trying to get health care costs “under control” gets a bit misguided. If new medical procedures are invented while the cost of food, shelter, and clothing falls this is what happens. If all medical progress came to a complete halt tomorrow, all these “scary budget charts” would suddenly look extremely benign. But that would be a bad outcome, not a good one. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to put our current health expenditures under a microscope and pay closer attention to which of them are really benefitting people. Doctoring is a bit of an unusual profession in that it existed for hundreds of years before there were any scientifically valid treatments at the profession’s disposal. By contrast, we only see “airplane pilot” emerge as a job when there are workable planes to fly. So we should always be trying to make our health care system more cost-effective—using the best treatments and best health management techniques rather than doing stuff that doesn’t work—but don’t expect it to be cheap unless progress comes to a halt.