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A practitioner ponders

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Recently, I took a particularly vicious pasting on an internet forum. Why? I did not diagnose a pet's problem, but then neither did the next vet in the line. When the pet died, according to the online comments, the next vet had suggested that they might have been able to do better had they seen the animal sooner. The owner is, understandably, upset. Whether this warrants vindictive comments on a public forum is another matter, especially when it involves scaring other owners with pets under treatment. In this case, I had followed the discussion before the treatment failed and the owner moved. In common with other cases I have seen discussed on fora, the owner seemed more willing to share information with the forum than in the consulting room!

It is thought-provoking as to why people may discuss such issues and react so differently online compared to offline. The key would seem to be anonymity. On these fora, no one uses their real name. Like the car driver picking his nose, or singing loudly to the radio, the internet forum user is cocooned in a bubble of anonymity; they can disclose more details (especially if these might reflect on their husbandry) and say what they like without fear of reprisal. This is not necessarily a criticism of anonymity – after all, it is namelessness that allows me to write this piece.

So, what can we do? Join the forum and try and give a robust defence? It is tempting, but ultimately unprofessional, and probably pointless. Instead, we have to just sit and take the ‘punishment’. It can certainly be used for self-improvement; while I do not see that anything would have saved this patient, I could have handled the client better. More pertinent may be how to prevent such issues – we are not perfect and patients will ultimately die. Therefore, there will always be upset owners who feel the need to criticise – and the more anonymous they are, the more critical they can be. It would be impossible to follow all the fora in the hope of picking up on our cases.

However, it is worth looking at these fora. Some are much better moderated than others. The more reputable sites have rules governing what is said, especially with regard to personal comments and criticisms. Owners can therefore be directed to joining these, rather than opting for more weakly moderated groups.

More relevantly, we can watch our own comments. I hope the vet who took over this case didn't actually say what was reported. However, we all know it is easy to make simple, easily misconstrued comments. In the day of the internet forum, an ill-judged comment to one person can rapidly become a full-blown criticism broadcast to the world. The internet is a mighty resource and a mighty source of annoyance and frustration. Both its strength and weakness is its uncontrollability.

We can, however, control ourselves, and what we say about our colleagues is probably one of the first places to start. The vet that lives by the internet …

If you would like to contribute to ‘A practitioner ponders’, please e-mail inpractice{at}bva-edit.co.uk for further information.

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