Updated: Jun 26
Robyn Lowe and Danny Chambers
15 years ago, if an owner was dissatisfied with their experience at a veterinary practice they could tell their friends and family how unhappy they were. Since the advent of social media people are more easily able to share their stories with the wider world - often containing misinformation and inaccuracies. These posts have the potential to go viral which can result in an onslaught of online abuse against the veterinary practice from strangers.
Recently, the British Veterinary Association reported that 1 in 2 vets working in clinical practice experienced online abuse in the last year alone.
‘Vet Bashing’ is a term that usually describes online berating or abuse of veterinary staff or practices.
Any social media post that involves the cost of veterinary treatment and/or the death of an animal can be hugely emotive. This is the perfect combination to create a clickbait article that is likely to go viral. The majority of the time the posts are driven by emotion, anger or financial disputes that lead to public uproar. They rarely tell the full story, but the damage caused to individuals can be catastrophic.
In a recent poll in Veterinary Voices UK, 91.8% of veterinary professionals worry about clients complaining via public social media platforms and the subsequent issues it causes.
One member of Veterinary Voices UK recently experienced a media storm following a TV appearance. She shares her experience:
‘…received some horrendous abuse online ranging from strangers questioning my clinical judgments and veterinary qualifications, suggestions that I am too dumb to care for any animals and I must be negligent as a professional, multiple extreme examples of name calling and even a death threat. Luckily I have had a lot of support from the veterinary community and wider afield as this did impact my mental health. Trolls and strangers hiding behind a keyboard need to realise that we are human too and words really do hurt... we all make mistakes but insulting someone and threatening their life or clinical professionalism won’t help us learn from them.’
Money, not the quality of clinical care, is often the root cause of many upsets. Veterinary care isn't free- there is no NHS for pets. The NHS is 'free at the point of use' which has resulted in the public being completely unaware of the true cost of medical care.
To provide veterinary health care there are huge outgoings that contribute to the final bill. High practice overheads, very expensive medical equipment, professional indemnity insurance, RCVS registration fees, Continued Professional Development (CPD) provision, cost of drugs and consumables and salaries for staff (which are a lot lower than in human health care).
We can also find that ‘outcome’ bias plays a part. Some cases are complex, and some unfortunately cannot be cured. If a pet dies, despite the best efforts of staff, the owner may be more likely to question the cost of the veterinary care provided. Whether the animal lives or dies, the cost of treatment to the business is the same. The mixture of grief, loss and the financial burden can stir huge emotions leading to a complaint.
Any owners who have financial concerns should make that clear to the team from the start of treatment. The veterinary practice will accommodate this by finding a suitable treatment plan that meets your needs or directing you to charity veterinary care provision.
End social shaming
Holding people or organisations accountable for unacceptable behaviour is of course necessary. There are occasions when individuals have broken rules or acted unprofessionally and therefore should undergo an investigation by the professional governing bodies - in the case of vets and vet nurses this is the RCVS.
However, the vast majority of online abuse comes from people who create an emotive and inaccurate story with the aim of causing a storm of abuse and anger against a veterinary professional or a practice.
Due to GDPR and rules regarding professional conduct, the practice cannot respond or rebut the online claims by sharing the details of the case in question.
Cyberbullying can be hugely stressful, and has the potential to increase the risk of suffering from poor mental health. We know that vets are four times more likely to die from suicide than the general population, and online abuse only adds to the daily struggles and stress veterinary professionals experience.
Veterinary complaints are often extremely complex and there is rarely only one individual to blame. No social media storm or witch hunt is going to appropriately tackle the issue or help to improve the treatment of future cases.
How to complain constructively
Do not engage in abusive, threatening or intimidating behaviour, either in person or online. There is no excuse for ‘trial by social media.’
If you have genuine concerns about the treatment of your pet, these should be raised through the appropriate channels- initially by writing to the manager or director of the veterinary practice itself.
Avoid the knee jerk reaction to call for veterinary professionals to be struck off the veterinary register - this is rarely an appropriate outcome. Many people do not realise that being struck off means the individual can no longer work as a vet or registered veterinary nurse.
Financial disputes are not a professional conduct issue and so complaining to the RCVS is not appropriate or constructive in these cases. Financial disputes should be resolved by discussing with the manager or director of the veterinary practice.
People working in veterinary medicine are among the most diligent, compassionate and hardworking individuals, so a spurious complaint can cause a huge amount of stress and sleepless nights for months on end.
It is only appropriate to complain to the RCVS if you believe your vet has been dishonest or unprofessional in their dealings with you.
We are real people
Vets regularly deal with difficult cases that sometimes die. Receiving a complaint from an owner can be a hugely stressful, devastating blow on top of what is already a very difficult situation for the vet to deal with.
Before you make a complaint, please bear in mind that vets and vet nurses are working long hours in stressful situations, dealing with difficult cases, supporting owners through euthanasia, and managing their own emotions when the patients they care for sometimes die.
On top of all this stress, over 90% of veterinary professionals polled in Veterinary Voices UK reported they live in fear of online complaints and social media abuse.
Obviously some complaints are justified, but they are best made when emotions are not running high. Sometimes an informal chat with the vet or manager will resolve the issue, as more often than not it turns out there is simply a misunderstanding. Most complaints arise as a result of poor communication which can often be easily rectified. If you’re still not satisfied, a formal complaint in writing being clear about your specific issue should be the next step.
Think carefully about the outcome you wish to see as a result of the complaint - do you want an apology? A reduction in your bill? A vet or nurse to be punished in some way? Always remember that the vet or vet nurse you are complaining about will be a highly diligent, compassionate and caring human being who will undoubtedly suffer significant stress as a result of the complaints process.
Above all, remember that trolling a veterinary practice on social media will not help to resolve your complaint, and the resulting barrage of online abuse will cause a huge amount of stress and upset to all the staff who work at that veterinary practice.