November 6, 2014


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Anyone who knows me knows that I love technology. My family had a computer since MS-DOS was the operating system and I made robots for science fair projects. I can’t even begin to imagine going through all of the education I’ve had so far without the Internet. New technologies have allowed veterinary medicine to advance in leaps and bounds. That being said, there are some unavoidable consequences to having such powerful tools at everyone’s disposal.

Nowadays, when people bring their animals in to the vet, there’s a good chance that they’ve already Googled the symptoms and come up with a rough idea of what they think might be going on. I can’t blame them, I would do the same thing. There are a few ways I’ve seen this scenario can play out. One is that they’re a little hypochondriac about their animals (is there a word for this?) and are paranoid about the worst case scenario they’ve found (I can relate the most to these people). Then the veterinarian just has to reassure them that their pet is probably not facing imminent death, which is news that most people are glad to hear and then they love the veterinarian and will listen to him or her happily.

Another is a little more uncomfortable — when the owner uses what they’ve learned on Google as a way to test the veterinarian. Then you’ll see them sometimes nodding in agreement when the vet says something that they’ve already read. This is fine, until they bring up some esoteric alternative therapy that the vet has never heard of before. At that point, the vet has one of two options — to pretend that they’ve heard of it or to honestly admit that they haven’t. I think I’ve been fortunate enough so far to only have mentors who will honestly admit to not knowing and it’s always turned out for the best in the end because it gains the client’s trust.

Then there are the clients who are convinced that their animal needs a certain medication/supplement or procedure. When the veterinarian thinks that it would not be in the best interests of the animal, it’s a pretty straightforward conversation to have: “I hear your concerns but I don’t think we should give this to Fido because it will be bad for him in these ways…” More tricky is when what the client wants is harmless in itself but is probably unnecessary. Then the veterinarian either has to stand her ground about the uselessness of what they’re being asked or just go ahead and do it. I’ve seen both of these scenarios occur with varying degrees of conversation preceding the action. If there’s already a long-established client-doctor relationship, then the clients are more likely to listen to the veterinarian. Often, there hasn’t been a pre-established relationship of any significance and the owner really wants something because they’ve read about it or because all of their friends are doing it (I promise I’m not making this up) and many veterinarians will go ahead and do whatever is being asked of them. I’ve noticed that the younger ones attempt to have a conversation first and the older ones who are perhaps more jaded will just go ahead and do it. I wondered a lot about the ethics of this when I first saw it happen, but if something is truly not going to cause any harm to the animal, will leave the owner satisfied, and they’re willing to pay for it, I suppose it would be hard to call it unethical.

What this really all boils down to is that the Internet has made it even more important for veterinarians to be effective communicators and really learn how to form solid professional relationships with their clients. This way, when it’s the veterinarian’s word against Dr. Google’s, the client will listen to the veterinarian because they trust her. Then instead of dreading Dr. Google and all the trouble he causes, we can use him as a tool to help us — telling clients to “Google responsibly” allows them to both satisfy their curiosity and reinforces that the veterinarian should be the ultimate resource for advice.