Two months ago, when my 14-year-old cat's breathing became labored, he wouldn't eat and he could barely walk, I took him to the emergency room.
There, the young doctor left no doubt that he was dying. Congestive heart failure, she said. Pneumonia too. He was taken straight to the intensive care unit.
His cardiologist, Dr. Nancy Laste, began giving him oxygen, antibiotics and diuretics. Day after day, he hung in, and so did she. Virtually every day for a week, Laste would call me around 9 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. Other staffers telephoned with updates too. I could also call anytime and have someone read me the latest notes on the computer.
The hospital and its staff saved my cat's life, but the experience has left me wondering: If an animal hospital can do so well at keeping family members in the loop, why can't people hospitals?
"That's the $64-billion question -- why can't we do this for humans?" said Gerald Kominski, associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. "A lot of people have had this experience: The quality of service they get in so many other sectors of the economy far exceeds what we get in healthcare." Among other issues, patients often aren't the ones paying for most hospital care -- that's in the hands of insurers.
Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government, had a German shepherd that was hospitalized in Philadelphia.
"The cardiology resident called me every single day. Yet I've had the personal experience with human relatives where I could never get through to the physician or resident." Discharge instructions, he added, are also often "better in well-trained veterinary programs than in many discharges from [people's] hospitals."
At the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass., a nonprofit think tank, Executive Vice President Maureen Bisognano uses a training video called "It's a Dog's World" to make a similar point.
It shows a man and his dog going for a walk and falling in a creek. The dog gets whisked to an animal hospital, the man to a people's hospital. The dog is treated quickly and with care. The man encounters rudeness, long waits, a bewildering array of caretakers, and finally he makes it home. The phone rings. The wife answers, thanks the doctor for calling and promises to give him the right medications -- in his dog food.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, Karen Donelan, a senior scientist in health policy, has made a similar video.
If it's such a common observation among health policy analysts that we do better with animals than with people, why can't we fix the people part?
Much of the problem with human healthcare, the analysts say, boils down to money, fear of lawsuits, the short length of hospital stays, the sheer size and complexity of modern hospitals and, of course, priorities.
Mass General, for instance, sees 1.5 million outpatients a year who speak 60 languages; at any given moment, it has more than 800 inpatients. MSPCA-Angell in Boston, where I took my cat, sees 43,000 animals a year, 60 of which are inpatients on any given day.
On the other hand, nursing ratios are not that different. At Angell, there's one nurse caring for every eight patients. In human hospitals, the nationwide average is one nurse caring for every six, eight or 10 patients, depending on the severity of the case, according to the American Nurses Assn. Sometimes one or two nurses care for a very sick patient.
To be sure, the money flow is different. At Angell, pet owners pay -- and pay and pay -- out of pocket, while most human patients have some insurance. At Angell, the average inpatient bill is $1,500 to $2,000. (Financial aid is sometimes available.)
This freely flowing money means doctors don't have to spend endless hours filling out forms. They don't have to "game the system" by trying to figure out under what obscure insurance code to bill a specific procedure. They don't have to do unnecessary tests to cover every potential legal liability.
"Veterinarians don't have nearly the administrative paperwork burden that human doctors do, so they can focus on what they believe is best for their patients," said Suzanne Delbanco, chief executive of the Leapfrog Group, a coalition of 175 corporations trying to improve the quality of healthcare.
A people hospital "has so many demands on it that this customer orientation ends up being a much lower priority than trying to get the clinical side right," Kominski said.
But with a better attitude, couldn't a people's hospital set up a system like Angell's, in which a family member can call in for updates? Clearly the patient would have to give permission to satisfy federal privacy rules, and a hospital would have to verify a caller's identity and make sure its information was accurate.
"There's no question we could do it technically," said Dr. Daniel Sands, an internist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and information technology specialist who helped pioneer the Boston hospital's PatientSite system, a national model that allows patients access to parts of their electronic records. "The problem," said Sands, "is how to get to the point where this is routine care. Doctors are so overburdened with work, and that type of work -- talking to families -- is something they don't get reimbursed for."
But it's not just about money or legalities or time. When my cat was at his sickest, Laste held off on blood tests for a day because his condition was so fragile she did not want to stress him further. In people hospitals, patients are awakened at all hours for blood tests or CT scans even though they, too, need their rest.
I'd be tempted to check into a pet hospital instead.