How the Media Exploit Your Fears About Veterinary “Up-Sells”

Pet parents are being tricked into believing they are victims of rotten veterinarians who are pushing unnecessary procedures.

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This sort of “gotcha” journalism can only hurt pets, their parents and veterinarians. By: Daniel Stockman

Not long ago, I received a nasty letter from a client, claiming that another veterinarian was trying to up-sell her.

“Up-sell?” I pondered. I thought that’s what waiters did when they tried to foist pricey alcohol and appetizers upon your frugal palate.

Turns out there was a pretty stinky ABC 20/20 report, aired on November 22, scaring pet parents into believing they are victims of rotten veterinarians who are trying to pad vet visits with unnecessary procedures. People are upset. Here’s my take on the story.

The ABCs report “Is Your Veterinarian Being Honest With You?” features a Canadian ex-veterinarian, Andrew Jones, who forfeited his veterinary license to run a for-profit website. First red flag? ABC had to go to Canada to find a vet to talk dirty. Second red flag: He’s not a vet anymore.

“Gotcha” Journalism

Many of you may know Marty Becker, DVM, who has had a working relationship with ABC for the past 17 years. Appearing on Good Morning America over the years, Becker agreed to be interviewed for the 20/20 piece believing the interview would support his “enthusiastic, honest and proud efforts to promote veterinary medicine and optimal health care.”

Becker had no idea, he said, that it was going to be a “gotcha” kind of piece featuring this ex-Canadian vet. Becker was shocked at how they twisted and edited his responses; and 5 days after the segment ran, Becker announced he was ending his long-term relationship with ABC.

When asked about the leading questions and tone of the piece, Dr. Becker said, “Honestly, I left the interview feeling I’d done a really good job…. I felt my job was to stand up proudly and defend a profession that I’m proud beyond measure to be part of.”

Up-selling or Upsetting?

Ex-vet Andrew Jones alleges that some veterinarians push procedures that are not needed, veterinary dentistry being the equivalent to the fast food industry’s “Do you want fries with that?”

 

Andrew Jones
Andrew Jones, from the 20/20 report

Now maybe this is a bad example for me, because I always want fries with that! I mean the “that” is that gross hamburger I have to buy my 89-year-old dad twice a month, so I need to reward myself with the fries, right?

But Jones is saying some veterinarians are pushing dentals. Like eating those fatty, salty fries that aren’t good for any of us, Jones is saying your dog doesn’t need that recommended dental.

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Along with dental procedures, Jones alleges that surgically removing lumps and giving excessive vaccines are examples of up-sells that many pets do not need. The veterinary community is in an uproar.

One Bad Apple Shouldn’t Ruin the Bushel

Every profession has some unseemly apples in the bucket, and ABC sensationalized this. Unfortunately, the piece ends up being pretty bad journalism because the information about dentals and surgical procedures is very misleading. ABC, in my mind, sacrificed honesty and investigative reporting for a vapid, and — as Marty Becker said — “gotcha” piece.

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The specific claims and allegations in the 20/20 report can be left for another post. Today, I want to zero in on how most general practice veterinarians deal with their clients, care for their patients, think about their clients’ pocketbooks and why many of us have a hard time going to sleep at night.

Welcome to My Real World, 20/20

I talk with a lot of veterinarians each week, sharing cases and researching online with an expansive group of vets. The vast majority of our incomes don’t depend on how many unnecessary procedures we do.  Instead of “pushing” procedures, most of us are trying to make sick pets better.

That means working with caretakers and their limited budgets. More veterinary hours are spent on finding ways to help people pay for the stuff their animals need than you could ever imagine.

One of the biggest frustrations vets have is wanting to give their patients great care, and learning that clients can’t afford it or won’t pay for it. Unlike the 20/20 portrayal, many general practice veterinarians spend hours trying to save their clients money or find a way to help that client pay for the necessary care their pet needs, not padding bills with bells and whistles.

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Every day I go over multiple options with clients who are facing tough decisions. I try to explain how we can get from point A to point B in diagnosing and treating an illness without sending them to the poorhouse. Instead of actually doing veterinary medicine, I spend a great deal of my time giving my clients options and figuring out how to make economical choices.

I can’t just order the necessary blood work, for example, in many cases. I have to go over the costs. Many times I have to pick and choose and do what is not optimal.

Clients ask:

  • What will we learn from the blood work, and is it really necessary?
  • What is the cheapest way to get the needed information?
  • Can’t we test for that later?
  • Is it really necessary to check out the heart murmur before surgery?
  • What is the most economical way to do that?
  • Will you do the surgery without checking the heart murmur?
  • Does the cat really need the IV fluids?
  • Will the cat get better without fluids?
  • Can’t you tell what’s wrong without any tests?
  • Are the dog’s teeth really bad?
  • Is that a bad tumor or not?

And so on and so on…

Trust me, with pressing issues like these, the last thing I’m thinking about is trying to make my clients pay for unnecessary services.

Please keep in mind that the same client who often gives us a lot of grief about what something costs, or thinks that bloodwork may be an unnecessary expense, will also be the first to point the finger if something goes wrong or if something is overlooked.

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In order to practice even decent medicine, most veterinarians have to pick and choose tests, cut costs, give away professional services and give away hours and hours of their time just to be able to sleep at night. Trying to deliver safe and sound medicine and surgery within our clients’ means is probably the most trying part of our jobs. I didn’t see this side of the profession portrayed by ABC.

Next, in Part 2 of this article, I discuss the need for honest conversations with your veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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