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What should vets do about negative comments on their Facebook Pages?

Most vets realise the value of social media for marketing their services, but many have reservations about the possible downside of this type of direct engagement with the public. In particular, vets are often put off interactive online activity like Facebook because of their fear of negative comments by disgruntled pet owners. Is this a genuine concern, and if it does happen, how should vets deal with it? I've just had my first experience of a "grumpy customer" on Facebook and I learned a few lessons during the exchange. I'd be interested to hear what other pet owners out there feel about the way I handled it. For the sake of confidentiality, I've changed some of the details. It happened on a Sunday evening: an email notification arrived alerting me to a new posting on my Facebook page: "You refused to treat a sick kitten: shame on you!". I responded immediately, by logging on to Facebook and telling the poster that I knew nothing about the situation: we are a four vet practice and it's impossible for any one of us to know about all events happening in our clinic. The reply came back at once: "You turned a friend away because they had no money. It's cruel to turn away a sick, dying animal". I responded again, explaining that our practice had a fair policy to all sick animals, prioritising their welfare, but that in order to respond properly to the comments, I would need to find out more about the specifics of the situation from the practice during office hours. I also said that it was inappropriate to discuss confidential issues in a public forum like Facebook, and I asked the person to send a private Facebook message if they wanted to discuss it further. The person responded by reposting the public allegation that it was cruel for me to turn away a sick kitten. I then did what I had been tempted to do from the start: I used the Facebook "nuclear" option to delete the postings and block the person making the posts. This is the first time that I've ever blocked someone: I like the idea of Facebook being an open forum, with as little "censorship" as possible. I followed up the situation the following day by checking our practice records. It turned out that a long-standing bad debtor - someone who had had several hundreds of pounds written off previously because of a refusal or inability to pay - had turned up with an unwell kitten, and no money. The vet on duty examined the animal and gave advice on first aid, but refused to admit the animal for intensive investigations and treatment without some money being paid in advance. The client had no money at all with them. They were advised to seek help at a local charity clinic, or to borrow a nominal sum of money to allow us to commence treatment. We had heard no more from them until the Facebook posts, which apparently originated from one of their friends. At the moment, it seems that my actions in deleting the posts and blocking the user have resolved the issue of having an unwanted public argument about a private matter. Facebook provides enough control for Facebook Page administrators to allow unwelcome content to be easily removed and for unwanted posters to be rapidly blocked. The automatic email alerts that are sent to notify administrators about new posts mean that as long as someone is watching incoming emails, inflammatory posts like this are unlikely to be missed. I do have some questions. Was I right to delete the posts? Or should I have left them there, as evidence of my willingness to interact online, dealing with complaints as well as compliments? To me, the key issue here is vets' professional obligation to maintain confidentiality. It is not possible to deal effectively with a complaint without discussing the precise detail of the accusations, and these are often private. Even if it had been the kitten owner posting, rather than one of their friends, it would still be inappropriate. Holding a contentious discussion of this type on Facebook is like having a similar type of discussion in a busy waiting room. Suggesting that the poster sends you a Facebook Message instead is the online equivalent of asking a client into a quiet room to discuss the issue in private. This seems like a more appropriate way of dealing with an emotional situation where facts may be disputed on both sides and tempers may flare. Meanwhile, I hope that the sick kitten is doing OK. How far should vets go to help people who don't wish, or aren't able, to make any financial contribution to the costs of treatment? And should people with "no money" be allowed to keep pets at all? Perhaps that's a subject for another blog......

The veterinary profession: who’s in charge?

Have you ever wondered what to do if you aren't happy with the actions of your vet? Most people realise that vets have codes of conduct and ethics that they need to adhere to, but how does this work in practice? What happens to a vet if they stray from the correct professional path? Vets are a "self regulating" profession, like many other professions such as doctors, lawyers and dentists. The phrase "self regulating" does not fit well with twenty first century concepts of fairness and objective justice. It sounds as if vets are allowed to just get on with their own thing, putting their own interests first. After all, how can someone be expected to regulate themselves as firmly as they would be if controlled by an independent third party? The historical basis behind self regulation is the concept that the professions operate in a market where the consumer can never have full and equal knowledge with the professional. Whereas anyone can see if a grocery product is adequate, if your doctor tells you that some complex test is needed, or your dentist tells you that you need a filling, or your vet tells you that your dog needs an MRI scan, how can you judge if the advice is correct? There's an inherent imbalance in information and knowledge between the professional and the customer which makes it difficult for consumers to shop around in the same way as they can in other free market situations. To address this imbalance in the market place, governments need to have a system that forces the professions to adhere to certain standards. And the only people who know enough about a specific profession, in order to be able to understand what's going on, are members of that profession. Hence the concept of "self regulation". The government has created legislation which delegates the legal authority for controlling a profession from the state civil service to the self-regulating professional body. This authority includes aspects such as setting standards for who may enter the profession, setting standards of practice, and creating rules for when and how members may be removed from the profession. Self regulation also includes a complaints and discipline system which allows members of the public to raise concerns about services that a professional provides to them, as well as providing a process to investigate and, if necessary, discipline any member of a profession who fails to meet professional standards of practice. This system is designed to protect the public from incompetent or unethical practitioners. In recent years, there have been concerns that there may be too much "self" in the self regulating professions. If a doctor/dentist/vet misbehaves, is it fair that they should be judged by a panel of doctors/dentists/vets? Surely there's a risk of people "looking after their own" - deciding in favour of the professional rather than the public interest? As a response to these concerns, there has been an increasing tendency to include lay people on the disciplinary councils of professional bodies. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is the regulating professional body for vets and vet nurses in the UK, with the stated aim "to safeguard the health and welfare of animals under veterinary care, protect the interests of those dependent on animals and assure public health." Many people seem to mistakenly believe that the RCVS is there "to look after vets", and that its role is to promote the profession in some way. There's no doubt that its role is complex: yes, it does need to help to ensure that the veterinary profession is healthy and well-organised. But its job is not to look after vets: rather, its job is to look after animals and members of the public. Pet owners who have had complaints about their own vets may find this difficult to believe: when a grievance is not dealt with severely enough, it's easy to blame the RCVS rather than other complicating factors. However, a recent development at the RCVS may begin to convince more pet owners about the objectivity of the system: the new chief executive and secretary of the RCVS is a man with a track record of being a champion for the consumer. Nick Stace, who takes up his post on 3rd September, was formerly the Chief Executive Officer for CHOICE, Australia's equivalent of the consumer group Which. Nick's role has been described as "leading the College into a new phase of modernisation and development". If the general public has felt left out of veterinary regulatory activities in the past, it looks like this may be about to change.