Dr. Do-It-All

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: Valley News Issue: December 2014
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With cardiology and oncology departments, VETMED has the technology to make almost any pet well. But can your wallet handle the cost of a puppy pacemaker?

In one of the nine exam rooms at VETMED’s 13,000-square-foot veterinary care facility in north Phoenix, Dr. Matt Miller points to an ultrasound image of a young Labrador’s heart on a Doppler echocardiograph screen splashed with waves of red, blue and green. To the average eye, it looks like a TV news weather map showing the radar patterns of an approaching thunderstorm.

“This is an image of a puppy’s aorta,” says Miller, a former professor of veterinary cardiology at Texas A&M University who heads up the new cardiology and oncology expansion at the privately-owned animal hospital.

“The machine knows how fast and in what direction the red blood cells are moving, and if it sees disturbed flow, it assigns it a green color,” Miller explains. “It basically says, ‘Look here, stupid! Squirrel!’”

With this state-of-the-art, “human-grade” technology, Miller can pinpoint the exact spot where the dog’s heart is essentially pumping too much blood, causing an imbalance that could ultimately lead to fatal congestive heart failure. It’s a defect Miller can now fix with a minimally invasive catheter procedure.

“What’s so cool about it is, when Dr. Miller’s finished, this puppy’s going to be cured,” says Dr. Arch Robertson, VETMED’s founder and ultrasound specialist, who opened the facility in 2008, originally in a smaller building across from its current location on Cave Creek Road. “This puppy will walk out like her heart was completely normal from birth. She’ll live a completely normal life.”

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That is, if Robertson and Miller get the owner’s go-ahead to work on the dog. While VETMED’s expansion now adds heart disease and cancer to the already expansive list of animal maladies the center can treat, saving pets still inevitably hinges on how much the owner is willing, or able, to pay. VETMED’s veterinarian-referred clients pay up-front, with pet insurance – if they have it – reimbursed to them afterwards. The payment system and high costs (see sidebar) can make it difficult for owners to afford that cat chemotherapy or puppy Pacemaker implantation now within VETMED’s capabilities.

“There’s always a certain level that people are willing to spend,” Miller says. “But that just keeps getting ramped up.”

Robertson, who previously ran a successful mobile veterinary service for 13 years, knows about pouring money into saving pets. The facility was built with the proceeds from his mobile business, and he continues to funnel profits back into equipment and staffing (he currently employs about 70 people): “When you have the best technology, you attract smart people who really want to do high-level care.”

He acknowledges the cost of that care can be steep, but tries to keep it down through tight cost management and thrifty renovations. “We recycled those doors from the salon that used to be in this building,” he says, pointing to some exam rooms. “Saved us a ton of money.”

Fortunately, for the owner of the Lab, who hopes to train the puppy to become a hunting dog, the decision to proceed is a no-brainer.

“It’s one of those things where, yes, it’s gonna be a lot of money,” Robertson allows. “But it’s also going to give you 12 years of great enjoyment with your pet. When you’re promised an outcome like that, how can you argue?”

The Costs of Care
Keeping in mind that costs vary depending on the size of the pet and length and course of treatment, VETMED gave PHOENIX magazine the following estimates for its most high-tech, high-end procedures.

Chemotherapy: Using a 70-lb. dog as a hypothetical, the cost for chemo protocol runs $300-$600 per week for 16 weeks, for a total of around $8,000.

Pacemaker implantation: VETMED averaged the invoices for the last three pacemakers they implanted. The result: $5,000 per case.