We are always on call

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We are always on call

We should represent our profession at all times—even when we're off duty.
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Apr 01, 2009

A few months ago, I watched a discussion turn ugly on an online horse forum. A new horse owner asked a few questions about her horse's hoof problems. Another forum contributor, a farrier, responded angrily, implying that her care for the horse had been negligent. Several users, myself included, responded that this young horse owner was simply looking for help and harsh commentary wasn't beneficial.

The discussion quickly divided into two camps. The farrier's supporters wrote that he wasn't like that with his "real" clients. Others like myself felt his attitude was unacceptable. I left the forum and haven't been back since.

That farrier's attitude stuck with me, though. Was he right in voicing his opinion without the diplomacy he might adopt if he were face-to-face with a horse owner? Since he supposedly was a kind and considerate person with his actual clients, was it OK for him to adopt a different tone with an anonymous cyberspace questioner?

ALWAYS ON CALL

I believe we veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and other animal healthcare workers have a responsibility to represent our profession at all times, even when we're off duty. The public assumes we truly love animals, and we're looked to—and looked up to—for advice and for answers. Animal lovers trust that we are genuinely motivated to help pets, that this motivation doesn't exist only after a credit card has been handed over, and that it doesn't turn off daily at 5 p.m. In a way, we're always on call.

How often are we recognized in the grocery store or on the street and stopped for a quick question? How often are we deluged with heartfelt stories and worried questions when a stranger learns what we do? If we answer these questions with smugness, imply that clients are negligent or stupid, or criticize what clients may have done, we don't help pet owners or their pets. In fact, we may cause harm.

If a pet owner feels insulted by a veterinarian or team member, he or she may hesitate to ask for help from any veterinarian in the future, even to the point of delaying necessary treatment. Spurned clients may seek advice from less-qualified sources like pet-owning friends or inexperienced pet store employees. Our comments, even if they're meant as a joke, may cause an animal to suffer.

DO AS WE DO

Like it or not, we are examples to our clients and community. And with text messaging, cell phones, and e-mail, anything we say can be spread around the world in minutes. The false sense of anonymity suggested by our made-up user names might lead us to write something we would never say in person. Yet as any Facebook or MySpace user can attest, there's no real privacy online. When we post a picture or a comment on our profile page, we have no idea who's ultimately going to see it.

I'm not promoting that we work 24-7 or keep the midnight phone lines open to every caller. But I do believe we always serve as an example of our profession. Does our behavior outside our clinic match the mission statement hanging on the wall inside our clinic? Are the words we type online the same words we would use in an exam room? As far as our clients are concerned, we never stop being professionals. We are everywhere and always the veterinarians and the veterinary team.

Dr. Kirsten Marek is an associate at Animal Emergency Clinic in Bloomington, Ill. Spark a discussion with your peers online by visiting http://dvm360.com/ and clicking on the Community tab. Send questions or comments to