ABC’s veterinary care segment lacks “20/20” clarity

ABC’s “20/20” program aired an episode Friday night that focused on veterinary care and the costs related to it – and, quite frankly, called into question the recommendations and ethical practices of some veterinarians. We were highly disappointed in the segment for a variety of reasons, not least among them the fact that ABC chose not to use the bulk of the statement the AVMA provided in advance of the show.

Here is the full statement the AVMA provided:

“A thorough examination and the recommending of veterinary services based on that examination are the basis of good medicine, and they are designed to produce the best care for a specific pet. With the recommendation of the veterinarian, it is ultimately the pet owner’s decision on what services to provide for their pet. Establishing and maintaining a relationship with a veterinarian will assist in this decision-making process. 

Veterinarians are seeing an alarming increase in the incidence of preventable conditions such as diabetes, obesity and dental disease in pets. A regular visit to your veterinarian is the best medicine when it comes to preventing illness, catching minor health concerns before they become major issues and ensuring a happy, healthy life for your pet.”

By air time, our statement had been edited into a single sentence: “The American Veterinary Medical Association said in a statement to ABC News that it’s up to pet owners to decide whether to follow a vet’s recommendations.”

We sincerely hope that pet owners will continue to rely on the advice of their own, trusted veterinarian in deciding what treatments are appropriate for their pets. A Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship is the cornerstone of veterinary care, and no television show can or should ever take the place of that.

Help in dealing with clients

You may get inquiries from your clients about the show and its content. These may focus on dental care, anesthesia and vaccinations because these were the primary focus of the “20/20” segment. We have resources that can help you answer these questions and educate clients about the importance of the veterinary care you recommend for their pets. These include brochures, YouTube videos and owner-friendly web pages written with your clients in mind:

The Partners for Healthy Pets website also has information that may help you with these conversations.

On the bright side, we’ve seen great support from both the veterinary community and the public on our Facebook page and our LinkedIn page in the wake of this “20/20” report. We know there are many, many pet owners who value their relationship with their veterinarian and make the best use of this partnership in keeping their pets healthy. That’s really what it’s all about; continuing our dedicated work to ensuring that pets and people are able to enjoy long, healthy lives together.

17 thoughts on “ABC’s veterinary care segment lacks “20/20” clarity

  1. Pingback: What’s So Exciting About Wellness Care? What Isn’t!? : Everett Veterinary

  2. In the aftermath of the death of our pet dog, the state Board of Veterinary Medicine directed me to the AVMA website, and it was there that I learned of the “Principles”. The intent of this posting is to relate what (in our experience) is actually happening with VCPR’s as opposed to what the AVMA envisions.

    Background: We took out pets (3 dogs) to the same vet for over 12 years. We ensured that our pets had annual “wellness” exams, scheduled vaccinations, and dental prophy’s at a frequency recommended by our vet. We didn’t hesitate to take our pets to the vet for non-routine evaluation and treatment, and we paid every bill in full at the clinic when they handed us the invoice.

    One evening, our 6-yr old female Papillion suddenly began vomiting. I called our vets office as soon as they opened, described our dog’s symptoms (which by now included diarrhea and reluctance to eat/drink), and asked for an appointment. I was told that they didn’t have a vet on site that day. I accepted their first available appointment, which was 1 1/2 days later. At her first appointment, the vet did an x-ray and blood work. Her liver levels were abnormal; for example, her Albumin was 2.0, and her bilirubin was 12.7. She was given a shot for nausea, and prescribed Denosyl and Flagyl in tablet form. The vet said that he didn’t think it was anything serious, but that we needed to “keep an eye” on her, and sent her home with me. Thereafter, I was either at our vet’s office or on the phone speaking with members of his staff almost every day, reporting that her condition was worsening. A week later, (at my request) they did more blood work, which showed that her liver levels were still abnormal (her Albumin was 1.9 and her Bilirubin was 9.7). The clinic thought she was dehydrated, and asked to keep her overnight – which we agreed to. When I picked her up the next day, I was told that “we all think she’s just fine”. At 8:00 a.m. the next morning, I called and reported that sometime overnight, she had vomited a huge volume of undigested food that she could only have eaten more than 12 hours earlier. I brought her back to the clinic, and they did a barium study, and also sent blood samples to two out-of-state labs for analysis. A staff member told me six days later (after blood test results came back from a lab in Texas) that our dog had pancreatitis. I was told that pancreatitis is a common, easily treatable disease in dogs, and repeatedly told to “try not to worry so much”. After 21 days of treatment at this facility – with her health continuing to decline in spite of medication and enzymes, I asked for a referral.

    At 7:00 a.m. the day after I asked for a referral, we transported our dog to her first appointment at the specialty clinic, located almost an hour away from where we live. We were asked to leave our pet there for the entire day, and told that they would be calling us later that day with a diagnosis and treatment plan. That afternoon, a tech. from the clinic called and told us that an abdominal ultrasound indicated severe pancreatitis, a possible abscess in her pancreas, and a biliary obstruction; they would like to keep her overnight, (which we agreed to) and a vet would call the next day with a “treatment plan”. At that point, her Albumin was at 1.10 and her bilirubin at 7.80. When the vet called me the following morning, he said that he wanted to keep our pet hospitalized at his facility, and hoped her condition could be managed with diet and medication. He did not tell me that it would be another six days before a surgeon qualified to perform a Cholecystoduodenostomy (if warranted) would return from vacation, and therefore be available to operate on our dog. And he did not contact the Veterinary Hospital at the State University to see if they could treat/perform surgery on our pet at an earlier date. He did not tell me, nor did I know that severe pancreatitis/an obstruction of the common bile duct is a serious medical condition.

    Four days later, and because her bilirubin levels continued to climb in spite of diet/medication, the vet at the specialty clinic recommended surgery to remove the biliary obstruction. (By now, and in the aftermath of her first Plasma Transfusion, her Albumin was at 2.20 and her bilirubin was at 9.0). Our pet went into surgery at the specialty clinic approx. 6 1/2 days after they first saw her, and over 26 days after first becoming ill. (On the day of her surgery, and in spite of another plasma transfusion on 03/11, her Albumin dropped to 1.7; her bilirubin was at 7.70).

    Long story short, during the early morning hours of 03/17/13, shortly following a thoracocentesis, our pet died in the hospital that cared for her during the hours the specialty clinic was closed. During the course of her illness, we dealt with 3 separate veterinary hospitals – in three different cities, and paid close to $9000.00 for the treatment she received beginning on 02/14/13, and ending on 03/17/13. Not a single veterinarian or staff member at any of these three facilities told me while she was still alive, that death was the most likely outcome when a pet is not diagnosed with a biliary obstruction/pancreatitis for 21 days after first becoming ill.

    I agree with the AVMA that the VCPR is the cornerstone of a successful vet/client relationship. But it is ineffective insofar as protecting pets and pet owners when, in cases such as ours, veterinarians (with one exception) do not to adhere to it (i.e. lack of discussion, initially and as the condition of the pet changes, related to diagnosis, treatment, treatment options, risks associated with and the likely outcome of the mutually agreed upon treatment option, and estimated costs for the treatment that both parties have agreed to). The exception I am referring to in the previous sentence is that every facility we dealt with had effective measures in place to ensure that they were timely paid for their services.

    • Mrs. Blann,

      I cannot find the words to express my sympathies. I am sorry for your loss sounds too weak, but you have my deepest sympathies.

    • I can empathize with you in dealing with some of these complicated cases with specialists even as a veterinarian. I have had a veterinary oncologist recommend radiation for an abdominal tumor involving the major blood vessels of the aorta and vena cave (diagnosed with CT scan) that no surgeon would touch. I was totally incredulous as my dog was already in pain and stopped eating with a “ticking” timebomb in her abdomen. As a former emergency veterinarian, I always tried to give the client the full knowledge of what was fixable and non fixable and what it would cost in both money and quality of life for the pet and the owner. Medicine is at its heart improving , maintaining or in some cases making the quality of life bearable for the pet or any patient. I have a tripod Border Collie who has lived a decade after her rear limb amputation after a botched knee surgery from a careless surgeon after a major hit by car.

      I no longer practice anymore due to several reasons but the idea that anyone or everyone with DVM or VMD behind their name should not be questioned or that only DVMs can regulate the profession is pretty outdated and really does not protect the public or the profession well from the substandard practitoners in Michigan on TV shows to the opinionated veterinarians hawking their own version of what is right or to the specialist cliques who have divided the field of companion animal medicine into multiple specialties who are interested in their specialist views rather than the whole companion animal’s quality of life. I definitely think specialists are needed but they are losing sight of what is best for our companions based on not just what can be done, but also what should be done in order to give the pets a good quality of life for the length of time they are with us. I know other veterinarians may strongly disagree but I have experienced similar medical viewpoints when caring for my mother when she had ALS. Quality of life and being pain free trumped all of the neurologists attempts to manage the disease and extend her time of life, I understood that wish completely. Althought the 20/20 report was very slanted against veterinarians, the profession should wake up and start asking hard questions about the standards and quality of care as well as the affordability of delivering care where people realize pet ownership entails a financial responsibility for over a decade and that veterinarians love to practice medicine and keep animals healthy but also must earn a livelihood in order to be attracted to the field and stay in the field .

      Robert Nix DVM
      Sherwood, OR

    • Dear Ms. Blann,

      As Greg indicated, simply telling you that we’re sorry for your loss seems inadequate. It’s obvious from your pain and your efforts that you loved her deeply and wanted to provide the best care for her. It’s incredibly hard to lose a beloved pet, and even harder to lose one if you feel that more could have been done, or if what was done could have been done better or quicker. It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to make statements about the level of care your dog received, because we weren’t there. An objective and thorough review of the records and events would be necessary to determine if standards of care were met; that responsibility falls to the state veterinary board, and it sounds like you’ve already spoken with them.
      The VCPR is certainly the cornerstone of good veterinary care, and the most effective VCPRs involve effective two-way communication between the veterinarian and the client. The AVMA has many resources available to both veterinarians and pet owners that are designed to ensure good communication and enhance the VCPR. These materials are just one example of how the AVMA advocates for both veterinarians and pet owners so that our beloved pets receive the care they need and deserve.
      We are very sorry that this experience has shaken your faith in our profession. But we have faith that the vast majority of veterinarians perform their duties with dedication and compassion that fully honor the VCPR and provide the highest quality care for their patients and clients. We hope that all of your future veterinary experiences can restore your trust in our profession.

      W. Ron DeHaven, DVM
      Chief Executive Officer

  3. Thanks for a measured response to an unbalanced piece of biased and ratings ‘grabbing pseudojournalism. This piece undid what veterinarians have been trying to do for decades, and caused further erosion of the public’s perception of our profession. And in the process, someone who has championed veterinary medicine for the public was wronged. Dr. Marty Becker, a long time collaborator with ABC on animal health matters, was duped and edited to make it seem like he did not recommend preventive oral health care and that veterinarians are upselling unnecessary procedures. He was flat out lied to, and has since severed ties with ABC (which he has held for nearly 2 decades) over this shameful and duplicitous incident.

    Thank you for responding and protecting the integrity of a noble profession.

  4. I think people are being naive if they think the veterinarian business wouldn’t “upsell” like other businesses. Maybe 20/20 wasn’t as furthcoming as they could be in the 12 minute segment, but the point was valid. There are good and bad vets out there, and people need to be aware that this is a for-profit business, and some of the recommendations are just not necessary.

  5. After watching that segment I felt like I had really been taken..not by 1 but 2 vets..something was wrong with my cat and I spent over 1000 dollars between the two to figure out what was wrong..after expensive dips, blood work, skin scrapings and special diet food I found the answer myself online. I suggested it to the vet and she said sure we can try it. My cat is much better now. Had I not looked I prob would have spent a ton more money on unnecissary blood work for allergies..his prob..anxiety!!

    • Julie,

      I am sorry that you feel you had been “taken” by two veterinarians with regards to your cat. If your cat truly does have skin disease secondary to behavioral abnormalities/stress, I feel the need to tell you that these can be difficult to diagnose and that it is a diagnosis based on exclusion; ie ALL other diseases must be ruled out first.

      I can understand how this looks like to you, but in your situation, it is likely that the doctors merely ruled out all of the other diseases, leaving a probable diagnosis of behavior based disease.

  6. Pingback: NewStat | Veterinary community defends profession after ABC's 20/20 report

  7. I was deeply saddened to see this 20/20 documentary . After working in veterinary practice for 30 plus years I have never heard such rubbish . ABC next time you choose to target veterinarians hire an expert. … Your documentary was poorly researched and clearly put together by a bunch of idiots.
    No profession is perfect … Just like we are responsible for what goes in our mouths. … We are responsible for what goes in our pets .. We decide their treatments … Vaccinations … Their total care. The worst 20/20 documentary I have ever seen .

  8. These stories are becoming increasingly common. It seems our profession is being attacked on many fronts, but the media has portrayed us in a most unendearing light.

    I ask what our AVMA plans to do about reports such as these that are front and center in the media. Immunization brochures and you tube videos may help, but it takes an open mind for people to actually search for those resources. What about the majority of people who simply will believe what they hear about our profession in the news, etc.

    Will the AVMA be doing anything to set the facts straight besides the aforementioned tools? Does our leadership have a plan to address this?


    • Dear AVMA,

      Aside from the response seen on your website, will there be any information disseminated to the rest of the nation that does not routinely get on your website. If no one sees your response, will it matter any?

  9. 20/20 has evolved into a hack job of a show that leans so far to the left that viewers need motion sickness pills.

  10. Pingback: ABC’s 20/20 segment on the veterinary industry – JUST PLAIN OFFENSIVE | Advanced Veterinary Care

  11. I was thoroughly disgusted with 20/20’s segment. Particularly the beginning of the segment where the (I hate to even call him a Vet) man being interviewed said he was scolded for not telling the patient to aspirate a lump instead of telling the patient to “wait”. Shame on ABC for not also interviewing an oncologist and barely skimming this topic. The man then scoffed when asked if it was indeed cancer and said no. Well that pet was lucky. If I had been told to wait when I brought my kitty in a year ago for a lump in her leg, she probably would no longer be here. The lump did indeed turn out to be cancer and THANK GOD my vet told me to aspirate the lump. I am truly horrified by ABC and 20/20. Disgusted.

  12. The CBC “Marketplace” program has just done a similar thing in Canada. They suggested that veterinarians were recommending services that were not needed (vaccinations) or too expensive (compared to some prices in the USA). The program had a major lead up as to when it would appear and used inflammatory statements to “sell” it’s program in advance. The CVMA and OVMA have filed a complaint against the pubic broadcaster, but to this point, no response has been received. I would expect this type of slanted reporting will increase and that ALL veterinary organizations need to agree on simple, clear and specific sound bites to help the public better understand the “value” of veterinary care. However it will still depend on how each individual veterinarian and clinic delivers on the promise of providing the best care possible on every visit, every time.