Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Petful in 2012. It has become one of our most widely read (and debated) posts of all time.
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A few months ago, my technician said, “Hey, are you watching this vet on TV? How the heck is he getting away with this stuff?”
She was talking about The Incredible Dr. Pol on Nat Geo Wild. A lot of my colleagues feel the show should actually be named “The Incompetent Dr. Pol.”
Since it’s out in the news that Dr. Jan Pol, DVM, has been found to be negligent by the Michigan Veterinary Board, the Dr. Pol controversy is in full swing.
The incredible, or incompetent, Dr. Pol (depending on which camp you’re in) is a mixed-animal veterinarian in rural Michigan, and a new star in the world of reality television. He is almost 71, practicing just the way he did when he came from the Netherlands, with a Dutch veterinary degree, in 1970. He was a large-animal vet and practiced exclusively on cows for years.
Based on his bio and his TV show, I have no idea where or when he tried to become proficient in small animal medicine. The show takes him through his long days, out on farms treating horses and cows, and back in the clinic, seeing small animals.
Low Prices Should Not Mean Substandard
Many people who watch the show love Dr. Pol because they think “old-school” means caring about animals and not charging a lot of money to do what he loves.
Well, I’m a bit old-school, I love my patients, and my clients’ pocketbooks are never far from my mind. In terms of pricing, I have been told by a number of veterinary business consultants that my prices are too low.
Be that as it may, my gripe with Dr. Pol is that “low prices” never has to mean substandard care or unnecessary deaths. Dr. Pol may look like the wonderful ol’ family farm vet, but his medicine is totally outdated.
He could be compassionate and considerate of folks’ finances, leave all the bells and whistles behind, but understand that animals have a pain center and surgery requires clean gloves.
Let me give you some examples from the show:
- A dog’s tail is amputated on an exam table without proper anesthesia or sterile technique.
- A dog’s femoral head (top of rear leg bone) is cut off without proper pain medication and sterile technique.
- A mauled puppy is placed in a cage and dies.
- A dog who probably had a ball stuck in its GI tract dies without the benefit of hydration or surgery.
- A Boston Terrier’s eye is removed without sufficient anesthesia, pain meds, sterile technique or intubation (anesthesia delivered via a tube down the trachea so this brachycephalic dog can breathe). They have enough trouble breathing when they’re awake!
Those are just a few sad cases that should not be happening in this day and time. Dr. Pol’s fans believe his kind of veterinary medicine is acceptable because he isn’t a high-faluttin’ city vet who costs a ton of money.
Well, take this from me, a non-high-faluttin’ country vet: Basic standard veterinary practices don’t have to cost a lot of money.
I am not saying that every animal needs state-of-the-art monitoring systems, referrals to expensive veterinary centers, etc. But every animal, if not in a war zone or undeveloped country, deserves proper anesthesia and pain control, sterile surgical technique and, most important of all, a chance at survival.
Cheap Can Mean Big Profit Margin
Let’s take one example: Dr. Pol’s tail amputation. He performed a surgery without minimal acceptable sterile technique, with limited anesthesia and pain medication.
Could he have done this a better way and still just charge a tail, not an arm and a leg? You bet. Here’s how:
- Anesthetize the dog on an anesthetic machine, providing oxygen and respiratory support. Cost of a short procedure? Less than $50.
- Use sterile technique. Cost? One large latte. Or a Danish.
- Dispense proper pain medication. Cost? Two large lattes.
Basic anesthetic and cleanliness protocols are not hoity-toity veterinary medicine. Every pet deserves a chance to have pain controlled and not develop a nasty infection because of a dirty surgical procedure.
Do you know what old-time practitioners like Dr. Pol usually do? They cut corners on safety and still charge the clients enough to make a nice profit. The clients don’t know any better. They think they’re getting a “deal” from the friendly old no-nonsense veterinarian, while Ol’ Doc Dirty Hands is skipping all the way to the bank.
A worse case may be that old-timers like Dr. Pol really don’t know any better. Perhaps they have no idea that standard of care is not more expensive. Ignorance may be a worse offense.
Dr. Pol’s age is no excuse. I have colleagues in their advanced years who have kept up with the changing face of veterinary medicine and are role models and mentors for younger vets. Combine their quest for new knowledge with their years of experience and they are great assets to the profession.
Finally, an Official Reprimand
A complaint was filed against Dr. Pol by a client in 2010 for giving poor advice and misdiagnosing dead puppies via ultrasound. The client had made multiple phone calls to Dr. Pol, complaining that the dog had passed her due date and was exhibiting a vaginal discharge.
The phone calls were not documented, something all veterinarians can be guilty of. But when Dr. Pol and his associate performed an ultrasound days later, Dr. Pol claimed he saw movement from the puppies when, it seems, the 10 puppies were already dead. Dr. Pol and his veterinary associates were found to be negligent, fined, placed on probation and ordered to complete some continuing education. His TV network has apparently tried to cover this up.
This is what the Michigan Board had to say:
“Pol’s failure to accurately read the ultrasound, perform a C-section, and to maintain records on Mocha was evidence of negligence, or failure to exercise due care.”
The board found that Dr. Pol had failed to conform to minimum standards of acceptable and prevailing practice for the health profession. Nat Geo Wild tried to spin this, stating that the board’s fine was for an “administrative complaint, not malpractice or misdiagnosis.”
We veterinarians have a tough job. Sounds like I’m having a little pity party, but it’s true. We need to do the best job possible diagnosing and treating the pet, explaining all options to families, and adhering to a professional standard of care, all while being transparent and honest with the families about costs, prognosis and so on.
Whew! No wonder I’m exhausted after doing those very things 10–20 times a day. So when someone like Dr. Pol is on television representing the profession in a substandard professional light, it makes many of us veterinarians sad.