Facebook fallout: Comments spark conflict between veterinarians
After his employees made unsavory remarks about a neighboring veterinarian on his clinic's Facebook page, this practice owner faced accusations of unprofessional conduct.
Dr. Seem was a young, progressive veterinary practice owner in an upscale suburban community. He was proud of the fact that he went from graduate to employee to practice owner in just seven years. He employed two veterinarians, five technicians and three receptionists. His practice was growing each year in a highly competitive Southeastern veterinary market. He understood the need for excellent veterinary skills and good client service. He truly felt that the reason his practice was growing in a less than ideal market was his use of social media. Dr. Seem felt that client reminders were not enough—he wanted an interactive relationship with his clientele. He established a user-friendly online access portal for clients and started a Facebook page and Twitter account for his practice.
He soon found that clients were sharing pet stories, making appointments and medication renewal requests, and generally "liking" his new Facebook page. In addition to veterinary health alerts, Dr. Seem used Facebook to post pictures of animals that needed adopting by linking to local shelters. His clientele appreciated the new sites and nonclients responded as well. Hospital staff members also shared stories and pictures of their pets with their Facebook family.
On one occasion, a Facebook message from a client related a story of a visit to a neighboring emergency veterinary clinic. The client told of her experience and mentioned the fact that Dr. Thomas, the emergency veterinarian on duty, was efficient but unsympathetic—even borderline rude. Tracey, one of Dr. Seem's technicians, replied to the client on the practice's Facebook page, stating that she had worked with Dr. Thomas and agreed that he often was rude. Another one of Dr. Seem's technicians posted a reply mentioning that she thought Dr. Thomas was a good veterinarian but lacked bedside manner.
Dr. Thomas viewed Dr. Seem's Facebook page and was very upset by the way he was depicted. He was a licensed veterinarian in good standing and felt he was being denigrated by a fellow veterinarian's Facebook page. He filed a complaint with his state board of veterinary examiners claiming Dr. Seem was guilty of unprofessional conduct and wanted him sanctioned. Dr. Seem responded to the board by stating that his Facebook page was a public forum. Some of his staff did access the page from their homes and made what they felt were honest Facebook entries. These comments were not his opinions and he never posted entries of a derogatory nature over his name.
The board ruled that this was indeed unprofessional conduct. The Facebook page was registered in the practice's name and was used as a vehicle to promote and share the merits of Dr. Seem's veterinary clinic. Dr. Seem was responsible for the commentary that he or his staff posts on the website. It was decided that it is not unreasonable to monitor and edit practice Facebook entries so that unprofessional comments by staff do not enter cyberspace.
Social media is a wonderful, progressive tool available to the veterinary profession. But as Dr. Seem learned, it should not be used in a casual manner. If a practice is to have a Facebook page, the staff must be advised of the practice's usage rules before making any postings. Some practices do not even allow employees to make any postings on the Facebook page for fear of saying something that may put the practice in a bad light.
A veterinary practice owner must be responsible for information that he or she makes available to clientele and the public. If the proper guidelines are followed, Facebook can be a wonderful addition to the practice's client outreach. But if there are no guidelines, the practice could end up facing the music.
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Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, N.J. He is a member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.