Think Out Loud

Oregon Humane Society expands services, plans to open a pet hospital

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Oct. 13, 2022 4:51 p.m. Updated: Oct. 20, 2022 9:06 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, Oct. 13

The Oregon Humane Society is opening a pet hospital this month.

The Oregon Humane Society is opening a pet hospital this month.

Courtesy of Oregon Humane Society

The Oregon Humane Society will be opening a new community veterinary hospital in Portland. It will offer accessible and affordable pet care, according to the organization. Nationwide, veterinary practices continue to face staffing shortages and burnout. And some pet owners are having a hard time keeping up with the cost of services. We hear more about the hospital from Sharon Harmon, the president and CEO of the Oregon Humane Society and Stephen Kochis, the chief medical officer of the organization.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: A few weeks ago, we talked to two veterinarians who’d come to Portland for a national conference. We heard about the challenges that people often face in paying for care for their pets as well as burnout among providers. It turns out that the Oregon Humane Society has been thinking about both of these issues in recent years and they are central to the nonprofit’s new expansion, the largest in its 153 year history. The expansion includes a new community veterinary hospital, which will offer discounted care and an animal crimes forensic center. Joining us to talk about these changes are Sharon Harmon, the president and CEO of the Oregon Humane Society, and Steven Kochis, its chief medical officer. Welcome to Think Out Loud.

Sharon Harmon: Thank you so much.

Steven Kochis: Thank you.

Miller: Sharon Harmon, first. Can you give us a sense for the scale of this expansion?

Harmon: The scale of this expansion is nothing short of ginormous. We have an existing hospital that’s 5,000 square feet that serves the animals that are part of the Oregon Humane Society’s programs in addition to a low-income cat spay program. This one is targeting the community in general with a real focus on helping people keep their pets when they can’t afford medical care. It’s about 16,000 square feet of additional very high tech medical space and there are other programs that constitute almost 35,000 square feet of additional real estate for the Oregon Humane Society to do even more, even bigger and even further into our community.

Miller: Steve Cochis, what kinds of services will you be offering at this new hospital?

Cochis: I’d like for people to think of it as they would their primary care veterinarian or general practice – everything from surgery, dentistry, preventative healthcare to even urgent care. So you’ve got a sick pet that needs to be seen on the same day or within the next day or two, then we kind of want to be all of those things to the community. We have ultrasound, digital imaging, full dental equipment, a full lab, pharmacy; we’ve got everything here.

Miller: How big of a discount are you prepared to offer people?

Cochis: Honestly, it really depends on the needs of the client. We have a subsidized care program based on financial need. We offer several different tiers of discount, but honestly, if there’s a patient or a client in front of us that needs help, we’re going to figure out a way to help them, regardless of what kind of money they have in front of them.

Miller: Sharon Harmon, how is this going to work financially? If some people are going to pay next to nothing and some people I imagine might pay full price depending on need, how can you make it sustainable?

Harmon: And that is the key – is to create a program that is sustainable. We are working on our experience since 2010 of working with low-income clients. Some folks can pay something. Some folks can pay a little, some folks can pay a lot. We’re targeting to have 40-50% of our clients receive some level of subsidy and the remainder be full-pay clients. So that when you come here, that your fee for veterinary services is not only going to get you great care, but it’s also going to help the next family behind you, perhaps keep their pet, perhaps have that pet live a longer, happier and certainly healthier life.

Miller: How do you create that patient mix?


Harmon: That’s going to be a really interesting process for us. The good news is that we have advantages that private practitioners don’t. One of the things we can leverage is our volunteer work in our existing hospital. They do everything from pack and prep and inventory and patient recovery and moving animals through the shelter. And that helps us be a little more economical and then gives us opportunities to provide that care that other practitioners don’t have.

Miller: Stephen Cochis, you want to say something.

Cochis: Yeah, I’m just going to add some additional color to that. We are also a teaching facility, so we have the advantage of working with two shelter medicine interns. We also teach students that will help augment the care team. Sharon said, we have volunteers. Our connection to Oregon State University, as well as the fact that we’re a nonprofit, gives us some advantages with pricing and some of our vendor relationships that we can take advantage of to offset some of our costs.

Miller: It seems like one of the big ways there that you both are talking about essentially was that you’re going to be able to pay people less volunteers, perhaps nothing, or students. That does make me wonder about another big issue that we heard about though from veterinarians a couple weeks ago, which is workforce burnout. How much are you seeing that at the Oregon Humane Society of veterinarians or other practitioners just saying I’ve had enough?

Harmon: Well, I appreciate the question. I think what I’d like to add is that, while we do have the addition of volunteer labor and student labor, we also have what we feel are well-compensated professional staff that come to us with decades of experience that are certainly contributing to the expertise we have at a wage that is competitive. And I’ll leave it up to Dr. Kochis to answer the rest of that question.

Kochis: Yes. I think about the reputation of the Oregon Humane Society, I think about the culture that we’ve created here, I think some of the additional services – just the fact that we are tied to the shelter side gives us a lot of advantages that maybe practitioners support staff, etc., wouldn’t have, in general practice. I agree with Sharon that our team is compensated in a fashion that’s competitive in the general landscape. Gone are the days where it was believed that you could pay shelter veterinarians or shelter staff less than they were getting paid in private practice simply because you’re taking out the client side of things and they were just dealing with the pets in front of them and we got to make all the medical decisions regardless of cost. But that time is behind us, and we’ve got our compensation, our benefits. All of that is in line with what’s being paid out in the private sector.

Harmon: And I also think that our staff get the opportunity to do the right thing regardless of pet parents’ ability to pay. And that isn’t the case in a private practice. Every veterinary clinic has an angel fund where they help their existing clients or perhaps a new client or a special circumstance, but that is the mission of the Oregon Humane Society. I can’t understate the value-add of that emotional connection to doing the best job possible for the pets in our care, but in no way, shape or form can that make up for a competitive salary. It’s just a value-add to working here.

Miller: Steve Cochis, my understanding is that you have a vet social worker on staff. What does that job entail? And can you give us an example of the work they actually do?

Cochis: Yes. I’m really proud of our vision in bringing this role into the shelter side and now into the community veterinary hospital. We’re trained to be veterinarians. We’re trained to be medical care providers. We’re trained to practice good care of our patients and practice good medicine, but where we’re not trained is in the area of dealing with mental health crisis, dealing with drug addiction, dealing with houselessness and dealing with all of these social issues.

Miller: The messy human side?

Cochis: Correct, the messy human side. And a lot of our patients, particularly when the patient is sick, they come with that messy human side. There’s messy human stuff with probably half of our clients in some way, shape or form, but the social worker is able to take that top tier of the most emotionally challenging or the most draining of cases and help us, either directly by helping with the client or indirectly by supporting the team or providing them additional resources that they might not be aware of. They’re kind of like our liaison and our connection to the human social services world so we can focus on taking care of the patient. We’re still communicating with the client, etc., but we have someone to help us navigate some of the challenges on the human side.

Miller: Sharon Harmon, your nonprofit is called the Oregon Humane Society, but the big expansion we’re talking about is in Portland. What options are there going to be for better care or less expensive care for people outside of Portland?

Harmon: Well, there’s no geographic limit to our client base. If you can get here, we can help you. I think that for the Oregon Humane Society, this transformational endeavor for our work into the future, we need to grow into it, test it out and then identify in the future what are the opportunities and the needs of our community across Oregon. We’ve now merged with the Willamette Humane Society in Salem. So we really have two campuses. How does this model work in both regions? The community hospital certainly has some limitations you have to get here. There’s not really a good bus line here. Columbia Boulevard is a pretty dangerous road to be turning off and on and we recognize those challenges, but we also through our work with the Spay and  Save Program realize that people love their pets and they will make accommodations to get here. And maybe in the future, there’s a transport program where we can help people get transportation to the hospital.

Miller: Sharon Harmon and Steven Cochis, thanks very much.

Cochis: Thank you.

Harmon: Thank you.

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