Impact of collaborative care on survival time for dogs with congestive heart failure and revenue for attending primary care veterinarians

Bonnie K. Lefbom DVM
Neal K. Peckens DVM CVCA-Cardiac Care for Pets
JAVMA • Vol 249 • No. 1 • July 1, 2016

This article was summarized from the above reference with permission from the authors.

The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of in-person collaborative care by primary care veterinarians and board-certified veterinary cardiologists on survival time of dogs after the onset of congestive heart failure (CHF) and on associated revenue for the attending primary care veterinarians.

Veterinary medicine has witnessed a societal shift in the perception of companion animal care, with pets now commonly considered valued members of the family.1-4 As a consequence of this evolving perception, demand is increasing for specialized care, as are expectations for state-of-the-art medicine within the veterinary profession.5-7 The number of referral hospitals offering 24-hour emergency care is also increasing, and numerous specialty services are now being provided by board-certified specialists, resulting in a multitiered medical system similar to the human health-care model.8

The expectation in both veterinary and human medicine is that the focused breadth of study, extensive training, and cumulative clinical experience of veterinary specialists result in improved diagnostic accuracy, optimal treatment plans, and improved patient outcomes relative to those achieved by veterinarians lacking such a background. This expectation or presumption has been identified as one of the factors that influence a primary care physician’s decision to refer a patient for specialist care,9 but little objective evidence exists to support this presumption in veterinary medicine.10

Cardiology is a well-established specialty discipline within veterinary medicine. Myxomatous mitral valve disease (MMVD) is the most common condition diagnosed in dogs and treated in this field.11,12 Long-term management of CHF secondary to MMVD requires a tiered polypharmacy approach, with abundant opportunities for collaboration and follow-up between the attending veterinary cardiologist and primary care veterinarian.13,14 Collaboration in patient care between primary care family physicians and cardiologists improves outcomes for humans with CHF, compared with patient care by a primary care physician alone.15-18 Despite this evidence, the rate of referral across human health care is variable because of the complex and diverse factors influencing a primary care physician’s decision to refer a patient for specialized care.19-23 In veterinary medicine, this concept has only recently been investigated objectively.9

Within the veterinary medical profession, the influence of financial considerations of clients and primary care veterinarians alike can affect the likelihood of patient referral to a specialist for care.9,23,24 A perception also exists that referral could potentially lead to loss of follow-up information and associated revenue for primary care veterinarians, particularly when collaborative and referral-based medical ethics are not adhered to.8, 25-27 The purpose of the study reported here was to assess the effects of collaborative care by primary care veterinarians and board-certified veterinary cardiologists, both of whom meet with the clients and evaluate patients in person, on survival time of dogs after onset of MMVD-induced CHF, compared with the effects of care by primary care veterinarians alone. A secondary purpose was to evaluate the effect of referral and collaborative care on revenue of primary care veterinarians.

Materials and Methods

The electronic medical and financial records of a multi-location primary care veterinary hospital group (Caring Hands Animal Hospital) for 2008 through 2013 were retrospectively reviewed to identify dogs for inclusion in the study. The 4 veterinary hospitals included in records database at the time of the study were located in the state of Virginia. The veterinary specialty group to which patients from these hospitals were
referred for cardiac evaluation was CVCA-Cardiac Care for Pets, with several locations in Virginia near the referring hospitals.   To qualify for inclusion, dogs were required to be > 9 years of age and weigh < 15 kg (33 lb), have a recorded diagnosis of CHF that was retrospectively confirmed by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist, have no concurrent metabolic disease requiring treatment at the point of inclusion, and have a recorded date of death or euthanasia resulting from cardiac disease, including refractory CHF.  Exclusion criteria included survival for < 7 days after onset of CHF, concurrent clinical lower airway disease (long-standing cough or diagnosis of collapsing trachea or tracheobronchitis), known neoplasia at time of CHF diagnosis, or metabolic or endocrine disease requiring concurrent treatment.

Data Collection

For each included dog, data extracted from the medical record included signalment, body weight, thoracic radiographs, medical history, survival time from onset of CHF, total primary care veterinarians’ revenue (US dollars) from onset of congestion to time of death or euthanasia, and reason for euthanasia when performed. Because of the 5-year study period, revenue was normalized to 2013 values by use of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics consumer price index inflation calculator.a

Statistical Analysis

Appropriate statistical analysis was performed with commercially available statistical software.b


Initial review of primary care veterinarians’ records revealed 107 small-breed dogs that had a diagnosis code of CHF.  Of those dogs, 18 (10 females and 8 males) met the criteria for inclusion in the group that received collaborative care from a primary care veterinarian and board-certified veterinary cardiologist and 8 (3 females and 5 males) fulfilled the criteria for inclusion in the group that received care from a primary care veterinarian alone. Fourteen breeds of dogs were represented, the most common of which were Chihuahua (n = 4), Cocker Spaniel (3), Pomeranian (3), Yorkshire Terrier (3), and mixed (3).


Figure 1—Kaplan-Meier plots of the probability of small-breed dogs with CHF surviving over time after confirmed onset of CHF, depending on whether they received collaborative care from the primary care veterinarian and a board-certified veterinary cardiologist (dashed line; n = 18) or care from their primary care veterinarian alone (solid line; 8). Dogs that received collaborative care had a significantly (P = 0.045) longer median survival time (254 days [95% CI, 160 to 483 days]) than did dogs that received care from a primary care veterinarian alone (146 days [95% CI, 73 to 263 days]).

Figure 2—Scatterplot of the effect of survival time of small-breed dogs after confirmed onset of CHF on primary care veterinarian revenue from caring for those dogs, on the basis of whether the dogs received collaborative care from the primary care veterinarian and a board-certified veterinary cardiologist (plus signs; n = 18) or care from the primary care veterinarian alone (circles; 8). The dashed line represents the linear regression line of the significant (P < 0.001) correlation between revenue and survival time for dogs that received collaborative care (ρ = 0.73). The solid line represents the regression line of the nonsignificant (P = 0.71) correlation for dogs that received care from the primary care veterinarian alone (ρ = –0.17).

A struggle for many primary care veterinarians is deciding when and what type of patients would benefit from referral to a specialist.21-26,28 The study reported here revealed that for small-breed dogs with CHF caused by MMVD, referral to and in-person evaluations by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist along with ongoing active collaborative care between the primary care veterinarian and a board-certified veterinary cardiologist resulted in a longer survival time. Dogs lived 74% longer when they received collaborative care, compared with the survival time of dogs that received care from the primary care veterinarian only. These findings paralleled those in human medicine15-18 and, to the authors’ knowledge, represented the first such findings reported in veterinary medicine.

A primary directive of collaborative care is improved quality of life for patients, which has been shown to be one of the most important factors affecting decisions regarding euthanasia for dogs with CHF.29 Median survival times from onset of CHF in both groups of the present study were comparable to the results of other studies14,30 of survival times or treatment failure in similar patient populations.

A secondary focus of the present study was to determine the financial impact of collaborative care on primary care veterinarian revenue. Our hypothesis was that the primary care veterinarians would benefit financially from a collaborative approach in caring for dogs with CHF. This was in stark contrast to the concerns raised in 2006 to 2007 during an American Animal Hospital Association forum on veterinarian and veterinary specialist referral issues.25 That forum and subsequent market research brought to light the perception in the veterinary practice community of competition for patients between primary care veterinarians and specialists, including the potential that primary care veterinarians may be concerned with potential loss of income when patients are referred to specialists.8,25,26

The study reported here showed that collaborative patient care can provide a positive outcome for both patients and their primary care veterinarian. The longer that dogs survived, the greater the revenue generated for the primary care veterinarians. That revenue increased by 22% when primary care veterinarians collaborated with board-certified veterinary cardiologists, and survival time of the dogs they cared for improved as well. The 22% difference was not significant, likely because of the small number of dogs. However, these benefits to dogs and primary care veterinarians supported the notion that referral and collaborative medicine are revenue generating for primary care veterinarians, which is in contrast to previously reported concerns with veterinary specialty medicine.8,25,26

Although the results reported here supported a positive effect of collaborative care on dogs with CHF, additional studies are warranted to investigate outcomes and financial impacts of early detection and management of heart disease in dogs and cats as well as collaborative care involving other types of veterinary specialists. Additionally, more in-depth evaluation of the differences in treatment regimens and follow-up schedules between the 2 care approaches may also be valuable for identifying best practices.

The retrospective nature of the study reported here represented a primary limitation. Dogs were selected on the basis of strict inclusion and exclusion criteria, but their selection was dependent on the completeness and accuracy of their medical records. Our initial record review identified 107 potential dogs with CHF for inclusion, but only 26 (24%) met the inclusion criteria. Reasons for exclusion of dogs primarily consisted of lack of completeness of pretreatment diagnostic tests, inability to discern presence or absence of concurrent disease, or lack of radiographic documentation of CHF. The resultant small sample size and geographic breadth of included dogs were additional limitations that could affect repeatability of the results. Another important limitation was the lack of an ability to control for variability among dog owners in financial resources and interest in pursuing referral care, both of which could have had an effect on choice of diagnostic tests, treatment provided, and time to euthanasia. Additionally, we were unable to evaluate the consistency of recommendations for referral to board-certified veterinary cardiologists by primary care veterinarians because of the limitations inherent in the review of medical records; however, in clinical practice, no means exist to control or account for such variables.

Regardless of the aforementioned limitations, the present study provided evidence that a collaborative approach to companion animal care improved outcomes for patients and their attending primary care veterinarians. Additional investigation of the impact of a collaborative approach between primary care veterinarians and veterinary specialists of all disciplines on the clinical outcomes of companion animals as well as the economic consequences of co-managed care to primary care veterinarians is warranted.

Respectfully submitted
Dennis E. Burkett VMD, PHD, DACVECC, DACVIM (Cardiology)
Hope Veterinary Specialists

a. CPI Inflation Calculator, Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Washington, DC. Available at: inflation_calculator.htm. Accessed Jan 11, 2015.
b. SAS/STAT software, version 9.4, SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC.

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