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What’s So ‘Outrageous’ About Web Vets?

Every couple of years an enterprising group of veterinarians will set up a website

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It’s almost a tradition. Every couple of years an enterprising group of veterinarians will set up a website geared toward offering the burgeoning population of animal-inquiring minds the one-on-one answers they’re after.

Problem is, most veterinarians aren’t on the side of the Web Vets. Instead, they’re lambasting them for offering substandard solutions to irresponsible pet owners who are unwilling to undertake the obvious: Take their pets to the vet.

Now, mostly, I’d tend to agree. But only because, historically, the vast majority of veterinarians offering advice on the Internet have been low-ish sorts we’d never recommend to our worst clients. What special credentials do they have to offer? And why would a worthy veterinarian willingly turn to a life of Internet commerce when real, tangible pets are so plentiful?

Yet the Internet being as broad and roomy a place as it is, is there no corner from which the high-quality provider might eke out a respectable living? Should we paint everyone with the same brush, site unseen?

Unfortunately, that’s not what most of us would have pet owners believe. We’re dead-set against any Internet provider of veterinary information, regardless of origin. It’s a matter of principle for many companion animal veterinarians, in particular.

By way of example, here’s what one colleague had to say after Veterinary Practice News posted an online report about the launch of VetLive.com:

“This article promotes the unethical and profiteering practice of veterinary medicine by veterinarians that are willing to provide diagnostic and therapeutic advice via telephone for animal patients that they have never seen or examined. I was under the impression that, in order to legally ‘take payment’ for veterinary professional work, there should be a well-established (formal) veterinarian-client-patient relationship. As a receiving DVM in a referral establishment, I can assure you that over-the-phone descriptions of animal medical problems by both owners and referring veterinarians are (all too often) not very accurate. Outrageous!”

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This reception came despite the reasonable explanation that veterinarians Jed and Laci Schaible offered for their co-founding of the VetLive service (per Veterinary Practice News):

“The husband and wife team said the website ushers in a new standard in pet care by giving pet owners the opportunity to ask questions, get a second opinion or chat live from ‘the comfort of their own home at an affordable price.’ Prices range from $12.95 to $34.95 and can be paid through Google Checkout or PayPal.

“‘We felt it was time for pet owners to take control of their pet’s health and health care spending,’ Dr. Jed Schaible said.”

Pretty easygoing and an ultimately laudable thing to launch, I concluded after taking a look at the website. It’s professional. It’s clean. It’s veterinarian-only staffed. And after signing up a fictitious pet and getting a couple of questions answered, I concluded this service is much like what Dr. Jim Humphries’ PetDocsOnCall has been doing for a couple of years. It’s little different, in fact, than the answers veterinarians have been offering over at WebMD via partnership with the AVMA.

What’s so “outrageous” about telling a cat owner who’s just e-mailed a picture of an obvious aural hematoma that “X” is what it appears to be, “Y” are the traditional approaches if indeed “X” is in play, and “Z” are the major concerns surrounding this common condition? This, while also telling him that 1) veterinary attention is strongly recommended, in particular for the underlying issues, and that 2) if this is indeed “X,” emergency after-hours treatment is not strictly necessary unless severe pain, itching or anxiety are in play.

Yes, of course there are a million questions that cannot be satisfactorily answered online. Despite this fact, the possibilities for helping allay fears, point out the obvious and educate are endless—and way worth $34.95, especially:

/ For someone with no transportation or very limited funds.

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/ When a general discussion of “X” pathology report, “Y” surgery or “Z” drug is in order.

/ Should the pet owner simply need some hand-holding. I don’t know about you, but most of my client phone calls fall into this category.

Then there’s this issue to ponder: The fact that online veterinary Q&A websites are a viable business model is testament to the fact that veterinary care seems inaccessible to a great many pet owners.

Indeed, I often wonder whether the proliferation of sites like this one isn’t a symptom of the obvious: a failure of our brick and mortar system of veterinary medicine to offer the kind of solutions that pet owners require.

After all, navigating the world of veterinary medicine has become very complex over the past decade. And the VCPR? It’s a changeable thing subject to a range of interpretations depending on your point of view. Are you a pathologist? Radiologist? Consultant? In each case that VCPR line gets drawn slightly differently. And what constitutes “medical advice” anyway, and how does it differ from “individualized medical information”?

Meanwhile, the way humanity consumes information has been forever altered. Do you text, Tweet or maintain an active Facebook page? Play on WebMD’s symptom checker when you don’t know why your leg keeps falling asleep? If you said “no” to all the above you’re probably pretty opposed to online veterinarians of all stripes.

Yet just as human medicine is finding it worthwhile and perhaps even ideal for patients to source at least a portion of their individualized medical information online, so, too, should veterinary medicine strive to offer the kind of experience the public now expects from all medical providers.

But then, that’s the opinion of someone who blogs daily at a place called PetMD.

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Dr. Khuly is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her MBA from Wharton in 1997.

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