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Banfield may share data with UC-Davis

January 13, 2009
By: Timothy Kirn
For The VIN News Service


The University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) has backed away from a collaboration with Banfield, The Pet Hospital, at its satellite campus in Tulare, Calif., where the plan caused some consternation among local veterinarians.

The university might, however, soon get access to Banfield’s vast practice database to create a national food safety monitoring program.

Negotiations between UC-Davis and Banfield concerning the use of practice data that Banfield collects remain in early stages, university and company officials say. But in a letter to faculty members, Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine, said that the university hopes to use Banfield data, together with data from MediMedia and perhaps several pet food companies to create a Center for Pet Nutrition and Food Safety.

Banfield uses an electronic medical record system and MediMedia provides electronic medical records to 1,200 veterinary practices, so both could be used for surveillance of food safety, as well as other epidemiological research, he contends.

Banfield’s data recently proved useful during the melamine-contamination, food-recall situation. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requested of Banfield that they look through the database to get an idea of the incidence of kidney problems in pets during the time contaminated food was on the market. That analysis suggested that the threat of a kidney problem was lower than might have been feared.

The melamine situation and Banfield’s assistance to FDA shows how “invaluable” the database can be, said Dr. Larry Glickman, a professor of epidemiology at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Glickman has mined Banfield data for a number of studies. While the data does not include specific information about the diet of Banfield patients, it is collected systematically by veterinarians during examinations in Banfield clinics and contains a wealth of information, he said.

“It is useful in so many different ways,” he said, adding: “The bottom line is they have a unique asset for our profession, and for all of public health.”

According to the now-defunct university/Banfield plan, UC-Davis would have paid half the salary of two veterinarians working in a new Banfield clinic. The new clinic is scheduled to open in a PetSmart store in Visalia, Calif., which is in Tulare County, an area just south of Fresno that is a huge cattle-ranching region. UC-Davis has a large-animal program in Tulare.

The idea of the collaboration was that with help from UC-Davis, Banfield's new clinic would be staffed, in part, by veterinary medical students doing externships to acquire small-animal experience.

The College of the Sequoias, a local community college, also was involved in the collaboration. The college has had a veterinary technician program for 10 years and seeks accreditation, a distinction that requires the institution to provide externships for its students.

Banfield has reached out to a number of schools in recent years. Most notably, it opened a hospital on Western University of Health Sciences' campus this year in Pomona, Calif. The company has said that the major reason for its involvement in education is to help it with professional recruitment.

But Banfield often runs into opposition when it tries to affiliate with schools, and that appears to be the case in Tulare. When a group of local veterinarians found out about the plan, they got uneasy and began attending meetings. According to one of those veterinarians, Dr. Judith Jameson, they were upset that an august institution like UC-Davis would associate with what they consider to be a crass commercial venture.

Many independent veterinarians remain convinced that the strict protocols adhered to in Banfield’s 725-plus clinics and hospitals are more geared to generating profits than to practicing sound medicine, particularly its vaccine protocols, which some consider excessive.

“I am very concerned about Banfield and how they practice,” said Jameson, a UC-Davis graduate.

Banfield consistently maintains that its practice protocols are sound and evidence-based and that no Banfield veterinarian is obligated to follow the protocols when his or her judgment states otherwise.

Veterinary school Dean Osburn said he had no problem allying with Banfield, or with exposing students to its corporate practices. Banfield is a large employer and students need options when they graduate. They have enough discernment to decide for themselves if they want to practice with Banfield, he said.

“In my opinion, since I have been to a Banfield practice and spent many sessions with the veterinarian there, it is clear many of the criticisms are based upon incomplete facts, no facts and little or no understanding of their business model,” added Dr. James Cullor, director of the university’s Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center, in Tulare.

And local veterinarians were partly responsible for the emergence of the collaboration idea, Cullor and Osburn contend.

The process began, they said, when Osburn spoke with representatives at the College of the Sequoias and learned that the college was seeking accreditation. Unfortunately, however, local veterinarians had been approached about hosting externs and none expressed enthusiasm.

“[College of the Sequoias] administrators called a meeting with local practitioners well over two years ago now, and only three showed up. They were asked to participate, and advise in program development. They did to some degree, but the participation fell off over time,” Dr. Cullor said.

So Osburn mentioned the problem to Banfield representatives at a meeting he attended. They told him they had plans for a clinic in the area and would be willing to have the veterinary-technician externs, but they would need some help with the additional staffing necessary. The plan evolved from there, Osburn said.

Osburn was not specific about why UC-Davis’ involvement now has been shelved. But he and Cullor note that since the local veterinarian community got perturbed about the Banfield partnership, a couple of practices have come forward and expressed a willingness to host technician externs.

Some observers see a future in the Banfield/Davis negotiations. They said schools are strapped for funding, and it is natural, therefore, that they will reach out to industry for help.

“The schools are desperate,” said Dr. Peter Kistler, a member of the California Veterinary Medical Association Board of Governors who represents the Tulare region. “I think this has become a necessary thing.”

“I definitely think all veterinary schools are going to be more creative in forging alliances with industry,” added Jeffrey S. Douglas, communications director for the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, where a proposed collaboration with Banfield in 2006 ran into serious opposition from alumni and was defeated.





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