Could a Vet Treat a Human in an Emergency: Do They Have the Skills and Is It Legal?

Can a Vet Treat a Human in an Emergency

Can Vets Treat Humans During an Emergency?

Whenever a medical emergency happens in public, everyone always screams, “IS THERE A DOCTOR HERE?” Of course, we would prefer to have a doctor nearby, but what if there was a veterinarian there instead? Veterinarians receive medical education and first aid training like doctors. However, obviously, for vets, it is animal-specific, but could they still be just as helpful for humans?

Vets have a wide range of skills that are useful for treating people during emergencies. Legally, a vet is not allowed to perform medicine on a human such as injections, surgery, or giving medication. However, thanks to the Good Samaritan Law, vets have completed first aid on humans who need it, and no charges were pressed for their heroic actions.

With this being such a complicated subject, it is essential to understand the fundamental differences between doctors and veterinarians and the type of education each practitioner has concerning human health. It is also vital to understand all the rules and regulations behind medical care when it comes to both fields, and how those standards may or may not apply in the event a human needs emergency care.

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Differences Between a Vet and a Doctor

The primary difference between a vet and a doctor—other than the kind of patients they treat—is the education they receive for their respective fields while in school and training. Although veterinarians and doctors both spend about the same amount of time in school, the things vets learn will make a difference in whether they can confidently—and safely—help people in certain situations.

What Things Do Vets Learn in Veterinary School?

Veterinarians are highly trained medical professionals, and even though they are not qualified to work on humans, they are qualified in many other ways.

On average, vets must complete four and a half years of undergraduate education. Acceptable majors would be biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, animal science, anatomy, and many other physical sciences or biology-based areas of study. Those interested in being a vet must have this degree before even applying to veterinary school. In fact, some people have Master’s degrees or PhDs before going to veterinary school.

Once an individual has their first degree (or degrees), they may then apply to and attend veterinary school. There are only thirty accredited veterinary schools in the U.S. According to Penn State Student Resources, nearly 6,800 applicants were competing for about 2,700 openings in the year 2013. With this in mind, it is safe to say that becoming a vet is competitive.

Once accepted to an accredited veterinary school, these students attend four years of education that is considered equal to the courses that medical students take. The only difference between the two scholarships is that medical students only have to learn about one species.

In vet school, students learn about anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, microbiology, immunology, pathology, toxicology, biochemistry, and surgical techniques for multiple animal species. Students can take courses that focus solely on one specific animal species if they want to specialize.

The first years of veterinary school focus on studying in classrooms and experimenting in laboratories to build practical knowledge and preparing for client and patient interactions. After that, students get field experience during clinical rotations and shadowing experienced mentors while working with patients.

After the students graduate from veterinary school, they receive a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) or Veterinary Medical Doctor (VMD) degree. With this degree, they are now qualified to medically perform on animals in the United States. Much like doctors, many veterinarians apply for internships or residencies after graduation. These opportunities would be necessary for those who attempt to become board-certified as a specialist.

Each state requires that a vet be nationally licensed to practice any veterinary medicine or open a clinic. Depending on the state, a vet may have to pass additional state-specific examinations. This is common in states that have state laws or regulations for veterinary medicine that are not covered in the national tests and require further knowledge.

In addition to needing to complete between three to ten years of education and national and state license exams, vets also must continue to further their education in new practices and procedures to maintain their license.

So, when it comes to treating people, you can see that a veterinarian’s education does not provide enough training in human anatomy or medical care, therefore making vets second to doctors in the case of a human emergency. However, because vets may receive the same basic knowledge in general medicine in the first year or two in school as doctors, it could be possible for them to apply what they know—at least in regards to other species—to people, but only when absolutely necessary.

What Things Do Doctors Learn in Medical School?

While a vet could be helpful during an emergency, having a doctor around would be the best-case scenario. Doctors learn a lot of human-specific things in medical school that would be more useful during an emergency.

Like vets, doctors also need to complete up to four years of undergraduate education before applying to medical school. Some people may even have a master’s before applying for medical school.

Once accepted, the first two years of medical school are usually spent in classrooms and labs. While students study anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology, and pharmacy, they also learn basic interpersonal skills and skills for examining a patient. These classes would be about the same as the classes taken by veterinarians: similar quality, different species.

There are two major ways to go about the first two years of medical school. Students can focus on a particular study of medicine and spend their time taking classes that are dedicated to specific organs and their relevant research. They could also take courses in various disciplines at the same time to study medicine more holistically. At the end of the second year, medical students must take the United States Medical Licensing Examination, more commonly called the Board Exam.

After the second year, medical students begin the clinical experience part of their education. During these next two years, students will do rotations at hospitals and clinics through affiliations with their school. During these rotations, students work in the specific field they plan to work in, such as pediatrics or surgery. Students gain real-life experience in a hospital while being overlooked by talented doctors.

Students then decide if they want to work in patient care or research. Primary care education is available at every medical school. These programs tend to focus on patient conduct and typically includes more clinical rotations in general care facilities. This path comes with many volunteer opportunities and community work.

Students that decide to take the research path in medical school will spend years studying the sciences of medicine such as toxicology, biochemistry, or pharmacology.  While these kinds of doctors would be helpful in an emergency, too, patient care doctors will be more experienced in working in the field.

All the work that medical students do that either focuses on or works directly with human beings is why they are more qualified for an emergency.

The Legality of a Vet Treating a Human

Unfortunately, there have been headlines in the past about disasters happening after a vet prescribed medicine or performed surgery on a human. Of course, situations like these are horrible and should never happen to anyone.

But, instances like this are luckily not very common. In most of these cases, the human patient ended up with various infections and, in some cases, even needed amputation. Though our country’s healthcare system is not perfect, asking your vet to perform medicine instead of a trained, certified physician is never a good idea.

As mentioned before, while both doctors and veterinarians have licenses to practice medicine, they each cover vastly different fields. Some classes in early medical school could perhaps be the same depending on the program, but that is not enough for vets to be able to perform medical procedures on humans accurately. Since vets do not have the correct medical license, it is malpractice for a vet to perform any medical or medicinal procedures on human beings, and they could lose their license.

However, do not let this fact make you think less of veterinarians! They are just as qualified as a doctor, if not more. So, the issue is not that vets are not just as qualified or trained as the doctors, only that the species is not the same.

The same rules apply to doctors! It is illegal for doctors to perform medicine on animals because it is not what their license is for. Just like vets, doctors could lose their license by working outside of their domain of medicine.

On a lighter, comedic note, though, the Media Relations Assistant for the American Veterinary Medical Association, Michael San Filippo, wrote a fun article titled “5 Reasons You Want a Veterinarian on Your Team in a Zombie Apocalypse.” In this article, San Filippo makes some rather good points about why you will want to stick close to a vet during an apocalypse.

The Good Samaritan Law

While it is considered malpractice for a vet to perform medical actions such as prescribing medication or performing surgery on a human, there is a bit of wiggle room when it comes to first aid and lifesaving measures in emergency situations. That wiggle room is created by the Good Samaritan Law.

The Good Samaritan Law is limited protection from civil liability put in place by state governments to encourage untrained bystanders with good intention to help in emergencies if needed. Every state has its own version of this law. So, under the Good Samaritan Law, vets could technically perform first aid or lifesaving measures such as CPR without the fear of losing their license.

As long the vet performs these actions in good faith in their abilities, without expecting payment or favors, these laws will protect them from civil liability. Also, and this should go without saying, they cannot purposely cause the emergency to be a hero.

Many people would be thankful if a vet aided them during an emergency when a doctor was not available, so it is quite fortunate that the Good Samaritan Law allows vets to help when they are needed.

Cases of Vets Treating Humans in Emergencies

There are actually a number of heartwarming stories about vets stepping up during emergencies to help humans. Many of these tales are about young men and women who were unsure if they were qualified or ready, but they relied on their abilities and performed heroically.

Case Study #1: Vet Helps After Tornado

In 2011, when an EF5 tornado struck Joplin, MO, veterinarian Dr. Ben Leavens was in the center of the disaster. During the destruction, Leavens took care of both animals and humans in need. Leavens set up a triage station, bandaged people, and helped move people to transport vehicles. Without even thinking, he jumped into action to be of help.

Of course, Dr. Leavens had some practice helping humans before the tornado as well. Since he lived on a curvy road in MO, Leavens had sometimes been the first person at the scene of a car accident. When he was there, he would help stop bleeding and check vitals before paramedics arrived. He would also try to be as helpful as possible when paramedics got to the scene.

When asked about being a vet who has helped humans, Leavens said he believed that vets should always help in emergencies, even if the patient were a human. He warns against invasive procedures such as suturing, removing embedded objects, or intubating during these situations but says that vets should not hesitate to act during emergencies.

Case Study #2: Vet Saves Man After Car Crash

In 2013, Kevin Kuhn stumbled across a car rammed into a utility pole with an unconscious person in the driver’s seat of the running vehicle. Kuhn had to break the window when he approached the man in the car. He noticed that he was not breathing at all, and Kuhn could not feel a pulse.

Kuhn pulled him out of the car and started performing chest compressions until he regained consciousness. When asked about the situation, Kuhn said he just wished that the man would one day pay forward the kindness he had shown him.

Case Study #3: Vet Saves Woman Having Heart Attack

In 2015, Matthew Fry was sadly putting down Lizzie Bevis’ dog after the Jack Russell’s long surgical battle when she had a heart attack. The owner wanted to be there for her beloved friend, but the stress of the occasion caused Bevis to collapse.

Fry was able to use first aid techniques that he learned in veterinary school during this emergency. As Bevis began turning blue, Fry started performing chest compressions. He also put an oxygen mask on her that is usually reserved for sick cats and dogs.

When paramedics later arrived, they had to use a defibrillator to revive Bevis, who had been dead for four minutes. After spending two days in a medically induced coma and two weeks in the hospital, Bevis was diagnosed with Long QT syndrome, which is a rare heart condition where stress can cause irregular heartbeats that can be fatal.

After her recovery, Bevis thanked Fry for his fast thinking and actions that likely saved her life.

Case Study #4: Army Vet Aids Fellow Airplane Passenger

In 2019 during a trans-Atlantic flight, army vet Capt. Samantha Warner helped an unconscious patient while returning from a temporary duty assignment.

In the middle of the night, Warner was awakened by the cries of a woman yelling for help. Since none of the stewardesses were around, she had to react immediately. Warner quickly rolled the fellow passenger on to his side to open his airway, checked his vitals, and provided oxygen. She stayed with him until he eventually regained consciousness, started speaking, and completely recovered from the incident.

When interviewed about the situation, Warner said she relied on the basic lifesaving skills she learned as a U.S. Army veterinarian. She was also quoted saying that sometimes it is best to step out of your comfort zone and believe in your qualifications.

Case Study #5: Vet Saves Drowning Man

In 2020, Gary Stevenson saw a man fall into the Forth and Clyde Canal in Glasgow while he was out for an evening jog. After recently returning from New Zealand, where he was a veterinary surgeon, Stevenson did not hesitate to jump into the water and pull the man to safety.

He immediately started performing chest compressions on the unconscious man while a friend nearby called the ambulance. When interviewed about the situation, Stevenson said he was used to being in emergencies because of his work as a vet, and he thought that if he had not been there, the unconscious man would not have lasted much longer.

Conclusion

Overall, it would be safe to say that both doctors and veterinarians would be helpful during an emergency. While doctors will have all the medical knowledge necessary to treat any human health emergency, vets will at least have some basic first aid training they can provide that could make the difference between life or death in some situations.

References:

https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/yourvet/veterinary-training

https://vbs.psu.edu/students

https://www.princetonreview.com/med-school-advice/what-to-expect-in-medical-school

https://www.lhsfna.org/index.cfm/lifelines/january-2019/good-samaritan-laws-what-exactly-do-they-protect/

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