A veterinarian finds out something is not kosher
Should a veterinarian disclose a non-life-threatening error to a boarding client?
Dr. Steve Zuberg has a thriving companion pet practice in the heart of one of our densest northeastern cities. He has a staff of two veterinarians, five technicians and three receptionists. His practice, as is true with many urban veterinary hospitals, makes many unique accommodations for a diverse clientele.
He makes house calls two days a week and schedules 10 to 15 appointments in the same high-rise apartment complex to see pets efficiently and help owners avoid the challenges of urban travel with a pet. When he sees Japanese pet owners, he removes his shoes before entering the residence. His bilingual technicians allow him to converse more easily with his Spanish-speaking owners. Dr. Zuberg believes the success of his busy practice is a combination of sound veterinary medicine and a desire to accommodate the varied needs of his clients.
Dr. Zuberg also provides boarding for a few cats and dogs that are smaller than 20 pounds. One of his best clients is the Blum family. They have two cats and a Bichon named Moses. Moses often boards at Dr. Zuberg's veterinary clinic for three or four days at a time, and they use a cat sitter for their feline family members. When Moses comes to board, the Blums bring his food with them because they maintain a kosher diet for family members and pets. Each day's food is packed in a separate Tupperware container to make it easy for Dr. Zuberg to give Moses his daily ration.
On the third day of Moses' stay there's a mixup at feeding time—the technician on duty neglects to give Moses his kosher ration and instead gives him canned dog food that's used to feed other canine patients in the clinic. After two days the error is spotted and brought to Dr. Zuberg's attention. The technician then resumes feeding Moses his kosher diet until the end of the dog's stay.
On the day of the discharge Dr. Zuberg and his technicians hold a small conference. The technician feels this has been an honest mistake and the pet owners should be informed about what happened. Dr. Zuberg disagrees. He certainly would inform them if the dog were given incorrect medication or had a medically compromising experience, but in this case the pet suffered no harm and feeding was promptly corrected. Dr. Zuberg believes that nothing would be gained by upsetting good clients when there was absolutely no harm to the pet.
The technicians disagree. They feel that credibility and honesty are the primary considerations in maintaining a strong client relationship. In addition they think the Blums would appreciate being told of this mistake and would respect the doctor and his clinic more for his willingness to be forthcoming.
Dr. Zuberg thanks everyone for their input and makes his decision. He chooses not to worry his clients with this minor dietary indiscretion. The Blums pick up a happy Moses and are thrilled to see him. Dr. Zuberg is comfortable with his decision not to cause the Blums any unnecessary anxiety.
Is complete honesty always a mandate? Are white lies that prevent pain and do no harm always wrong? Some say that a veterinarian's honesty and credibility are paramount because patients cannot speak for themselves. It must be noted, however, that when someone is a professional and taking fees for service, the "honesty standard" rises to a level above that of casual daily relationships.
Dr. Zuberg was absolutely right in that the dog was not harmed in any way. Nevertheless, his agreement with the Blums was to care for and feed their dog in an agreed-upon manner. A minor mishap prevented him from completely living up to his part of the agreement. An ethical and honest professional should have informed the owners of the error. The desire to avoid client anxiety is outweighed by the fee-for-service obligation requiring the professional to be forthright and honest with the pet owner.
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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.