In veterinary medicine, we have greater incentives to make our clients happy than most physicians have to satisfy their patients. Pet owners choose their vets, often on the basis of location or personal recommendation, and they can choose to find another if they aren’t happy with the care they and their pets receive. Our clients don’t experience the benefits and discomforts of our treatments directly, and they often don’t have the background or information needed to judge our competence. The veterinarian-client relationship is more about effective communication and personal rapport than it is about pet owners objectively evaluating veterinarians knowledge and skill.
On the whole, I think this is a good thing. I believe veterinarians are often better at communicating with our clients and, somewhat ironically, at the “human” side of healthcare; talking to people about their goals and fears and giving them the information they need to make important decisions. We have to be! It is still unfortunately true that veterinarians often don’t have extensive training in the communication skills that are so critical to our being able to do our jobs effectively, but as a profession I think we have the desire and the incentive to serve our clients as well as our patients as well as possible.
There is, however, a down side to the importance of subjective impressions and communication skills in establishing and maintaining relationships with pet owners. Most owners judge our manner, and how well what we say fits with their own beliefs and values, but most cannot objectively judge our competence or the accuracy of what we tell them. Therefore, clients can easily misjudge the quality of the medical care their pets are receiving.
I once worked with a doctor whose clinical practices would have been considered grossly outdated and unacceptable by the standards of almost any other veterinarian. Yet his personal charm and comforting manner immediately engendered trust and loyalty from clients. It didn’t seem to matter how his patients fared, his clients adored him even when their pets received inadequate or ineffective care and did not improve.
In contrast, I have also worked with a vet who was intelligent, compassionate, and skilled and to whose care I would have trusted my own pets without hesitation. Yet clients consistently disliked her and distrusted her recommendations due entirely to her reserved manner. It is a reality that vets are judged on how they communicate more than on the truth of what they say or the objective quality of their medicine. We must accept this and make vigorous and good faith efforts to communicate more effectively with clients so that we have the opportunity to care for our patients.
I feel, however, that it is worth warning pet owners that the reliance on somewhat superficial personal attributes in judging whether or not you have found a good vet can be misleading. A recent and stark example of this is a glowing testimonial recently posted on the web site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF).
This pet owner feels she has received the best possible care for her pet, and because her pet has done well, she believes the judgment and recommendations of her vet to be correct. An evaluation of some of these recommendations informed by science, however, shows that many of these recommendations are complete nonsense, and it is very likely this patient is thriving despite rather than because of the veterinary care discussed in this testimonial.
The case was a new puppy with, according to the anecdote, skin and ear infections and intestinal parasites. The first warning sign is the blame given to vaccination for the skin and ear problems.
Our doctor suspected that the rash was most likely an allergic reaction to the vaccinations he had received from the breeder so…we began working to bolster Ceelo’s immune system.
While acute hypersensitivity reactions do occur in response to vaccination, the limited information here does not suggest that was what this pet was experiencing. Vaccine reactions are quite rare and quite distinctive, and the mistrust of vaccines induced by incorrectly blaming them for unrelated medical problems does real harm.(some facts about veterinary vaccines) And if this were a case of a vaccine reaction, it would represent an inappropriate and excessive immune system response, so the notion of “boosting” the immune system is not only nonsense, it is exactly the opposite of what ought to be done.
Things go from bad to worse as the testimonial describes the use of “various supplements,” which in most cases in veterinary medicine are almost never supported by good evidence and have significant problems with quality control and potential risks. The fact that this use of supplements was guided by “muscle testing,” a term often used to describe the quack practice of applied kinesiology, is a further red flag. Inevitably, unproven but passionate claims about the value of raw diets appear as well:
I switched him off of kibble and on to raw venison mixed with simple fruits and vegetables. This had a huge impact on his skin.
However, the ultimate leap from dubious practices to quackery comes with the mention of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM).
…his skin was still red and inflamed, especially at night. Our doctor mentioned that in Chinese medicine, that was the Liver’s way of releasing toxins from the system so we then worked on purifying his liver and eliminating anything that might be an allergen…our integrative vet who took one look at Ceelo’s tongue and knew immediately that something was not right with his Spleen. He then did muscle testing to confirm his initial diagnosis. He prescribed a Chinese herb along with whole food and glandular supplements.
The principles of TCVM, including tongue diagnosis, are pre-scientific myths and metaphors that have never been reliably linked to health and disease through scientific research. While some of the herbal remedies used likely have beneficial compounds, the lack of a rational system for employing them and the lack of appropriate testing to determine their real risks and benefits make the system as a whole as likely to do nothing or even hurt patients as to benefit them. The addition of the nonsense of detoxification, applied kinesiology, and glandulars make this a classic description of pseudoscience which should serve as a warning to anyone thinking of bringing their pet to this veterinarian.
Unfortunately, the interpretation given by the client, and the message of the testimonial, is exactly the opposite. Despite the advocacy of multiple kinds of unproven and outright quack therapies, this vet has a happy, loyal client. Why?
Well, I don’t know anything about this doctor personally, but I suspect like most vets he or she is a genuinely smart, caring person. He/she probably demonstrates true concern for patients and clients alike and likely offers advice and recommendations in a confident, comforting manner. All of these characteristics are necessary to an effective veterinarian/client relationship. Unfortunately, none of them have anything to do with whether or not the medicine being employed is effective or nonsense.
I also have clients who like me and trust me to care for their pets. Yet my approach to medicine is very, very different form that described here. The fact that we both have clients who are happy with the care we provide for their pets doesn’t say much about which style of medicine is superior because clients don’t judge us on the basis of the objective truth of our knowledge or effectiveness of our interventions, since these are not accessible to them.
“But,” this client might object, “the pet got better so that must be evidence the medical care was effective, right?” The core concept of the entire scientific method, and certainly of this blog, is that such anecdotes cannot be trusted and often do not mean what we think they mean. I have written about this often, but the bottom line is that it is deeply misleading to say that when an individual patient does well or badly that this validates or invalidates the treatment given. If this were true, science would be unnecessary, and yet the evidence of history is quite clear that science works far better than anecdotal methods or evaluating medical treatments. Here are a few reminders of why:
Apart from the effect of a nice manner, and the ultimate positive outcome for the patient, the other reason why I suspect this client views her story as confirmation that she has a great vet is that she and the doctor share some key aspects of their world views. If this client were a scientist or a skeptic with a strong commitment to objective evidence and science-based medicine, I doubt she would have stuck with unproven recommendations based on pseudoscience for very long. We are naturally inclined to seek confirmation of our beliefs and to reject challenges to them, and this influences who we seek information from and how we interpret that information. Clients may like or dislike their vets personally, and they may believe the care their vets provide to be excellent or terrible based on the outcome, but they also tend to view more sympathetically advice consistent with their existing beliefs.
It is natural to trust people we like, and this plays a large role in how pet owners judge their veterinarians. It is also natural to believe that something has been done right when things go well and that something has been done wrong when things go badly, though this is often not a reliable way to judge the quality of the care one’s pets receive. And finally, we are all predisposed to seek confirmation of our beliefs and to avoid challenges to them, which leads us to prefer vets who seem to think the way we do about health and disease, science and nature, and all the values-laden subjects that touch on veterinary medicine.
All of these inclinations are unavoidable, and for better or worse they influence the veterinarian-client relationship. Vets should recognize this and make their best effort to understand and respect their clients’ values and perspectives. We need not agree on everything with our clients, but we cannot help them or their pets if we cannot communicate effectively. I have plenty of clients with whom I disagree about the merits of specific therapies but with whom I get along great and who trust that I have their pets’ best interests at heart and the knowledge and skills to give them the best care.
On the other hand, clients should be aware of their own tendencies to judge their vets on the basis of factors that may not really have much to do with the quality of the medical care they provide. Without a thorough education in science and medicine, clients are stuck trusting their vets to some extent. Just as I cannot expect to effectively judge the competence or skill of my airplane pilot or tax accountant without having expertise in those domains, so pet owners have to recognize that while they have the right to control the care of their pets, they often don’t have the knowledge or skills to do so alone. If they did, they wouldn’t need a vet at all! And this means they must take a certain leap of faith when choosing a vet.
The key, then, is how one evaluates whether this faith is justified. The ability to empathise and communicate is essential, but it is not sufficient to mark a veterinarian as a skilled doctor. Ideally, an open and explicit adherence to established and accepted scientific standards of care would be the best way to know if your vet is doing the best they can for your pet. By this standard, an anecdote like the one on the AHVMF web site is a warning, not an endorsement!
Of course, if you doubt the value or reliability of science and science-based medicine, and if you already have a preference for the alternative philosophical perspective underling alternative medicine, well adherence to scientific principles and methods won’t seem a very reliable guide to quality to you. But at the least pet owners should be aware of the limitations of these natural human tendencies to trust those we like personally and who seem to agree with us. And we should recognize that individual anecdotes, good or bad, aren’t really a reliable way of evaluating the competence of those experts we hire to guide us in areas where our own expertise is insufficient, whether in medicine or other fields. Testimonials are far more persuasive than they are trustworthy.