DVMs advised: Prepare for media questions on fees


Los Angeles - A television station investigative reporter used a hidden-camera approach to raise questions about the legitimacy of diagnoses and fees at several veterinary practices in the Los Angeles area.

LOS ANGELES — A television station investigative reporter used a hidden-camera approach to raise questions about the legitimacy of diagnoses and fees at several veterinary practices in the Los Angeles area.

"It (February) was a (ratings) sweeps month. They took a couple of dogs to a selected veterinarian, had him pronounce them healthy, then took the animals to about a dozen hospitals where some doctors who didn't know they were on camera found ear infections and other conditions, some of which could have been expensive to treat. The insinuation was that some veterinarians were ripping off the public," says Dr. Jim Humphries, president of Veterinary News Network (VNN) and its news director. He calls it "a slam piece against veterinary medicine" and says the station's blog entries had hundreds of hits after it aired.

The story still has legs, presenting a challenge to veterinarians everywhere, Humphries believes. "I've heard a similar story was done at least in one other place (in the East). We (VNN) ... believe this type of thing could play in many more markets, large and small. This is in part due to its being aired in a major market, and because the honey-moon is over between the media and veterinary medicine."

Immediately after the Los Angeles story aired, the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) media staff contacted the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), suggesting that local members there "use the forums the station provided for feedback to speak positively about the quality of veterinary care and why fees are reasonable," says Sharon Granskog, AVMA assistant director of media relations, adding that many did just that. "The AVMA is always ready to provide talking points to any of its members, any time they face questions from the media," she says.

VNN's response to the Los Angeles story was to prepare some message points and techniques for handling media inquiries about veterinary costs and fees, presenting them initially to the American Society of Veterinary Medical Association Executives (ASVMAE).

"We felt we needed to get this into the hands of leadership right away," Humphries says. "Veterinarians and the state VMAs should develop their own relationship with media so that when stories like this hit, they have a voice of reason to go to for a reality check."

Here are nine "basic rules" Humphries says veterinarians should follow if questioned by the media on the cost of veterinary care and competitive veterinary fees:

1. If asked to comment on or to criticize another professional, you simply cannot. It almost always calls for speculation and you must not speculate in front of a camera, micro-phone or print reporter.

2. To steer away from speculation, simply state that you do not know the facts in that particular case, but what you do know is ...then tell them what you do know.

3. When or if you are personally attacked or receive the insinuation of a personal attack, take the high road. Be proud of what you do because you have nothing to hide, nor do you have to answer for the whole profession. You can only speak to what you know.

4. You know that most veterinarians do things correctly, professionally and honorably. Don't be shy about telling the media exactly that.

5. Don't be afraid to refute a leading question with a simple No. Then correct the misguided assumption.

6. More image and impression than fact are communicated in the media. Burn that into your brain.

7. Be the voice of reason. Hold your head high, answer questions honestly and stick to what you know.

8. There is nothing wrong with saying that you keep an eye on costs and use common sense. That is part of the "art" of practice and your humanity. Show me (as the viewer) that you are human and that you care.

9. Don't be afraid to agree that some cases may not be handled in the way that you would handle them. Then talk about how you would handle such a case. Slightly agreeing with a reporter (who frankly might have a point) makes you look human and real. If you come across as defensive all the time, you'll appear to be part of the problem.

With those guidelines in mind, here's how veterinarians might respond to questions like those the Los Angeles TV reporters posed on costs and fees, according to Humphries:

Q. "Why is veterinary care so expensive?"

A. "Veterinary care actually is a bargain. We care for our animal patients medically and surgically at a fraction of the cost of human medical care. Most good practitioners take costs into consideration, yet strive to deliver high-quality medicine using the best equipment and diagnostics available."

Q. "We took a dog that was pronounced healthy by a respected veterinarian to two other animal clinics, and they said we needed up to $700 in tests and treatments. That sounds like gouging, doesn't it?"

A. (You cannot speculate.) "I'm not familiar with that case, but what I can tell you is that our concern is always for the well-being of animals. We have to assess and treat each case individually and are proud of the level of good medicine and good common sense we practice at this hospital."

Q. "Yes, but in this scenario, isn't it wrong for one doctor to say that a pet is fine, but two others find 'hidden' problems and want to charge hundreds of dollars?"

A. (It's OK to agree in principle that some things would be wrong, but then tell them what good practitioners do.) "On the surface that does seem wrong, but I can't be pulled into a game of speculation. What I am happy to tell you is that most veterinarians are kind and caring doctors and we just want what's best for both the pet and the owner... There is a state board of examiners in place for just that type of complaint. The good news is that it is a rare and unusual case..."

Q. "Are blood tests necessary before cleaning my pet's ears?"

A. "Each pet is different and if an anesthetic is needed for a procedure, then the normal standard of care dictates that we make sure a pet has a base level of health to give them the best chance of survival. It is the client's right to decline such testing, and to seek a second opinion. We have always encouraged clients to get second opinions if they are not completely comfortable with our recommendations."

Q. "How can pet owners save money on veterinary costs?"

A. (Now is the time to teach a little.) "Preventive health care is well known to help reduce long-term medical costs in humans and pets. Keeping pets up to date on vaccinations and preventive medications and following good owner practices can help owners avoid costs associated with emergencies."

Several more sample questions and answers on fees and costs are available on VNN's Web site, www.myVNN.com.

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