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VNN unveils online advice site for pet owners

Project to generate financial support for media network


March 17, 2009
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


The Veterinary News Network (VNN) has launched an online service designed to provide health-care advice to pet owners and at the same time, generate money to support the overall media venture.

Last month, VNN unveiled the Web site PetDocs On Call during the Western Veterinary Conference (WVC) in Las Vegas. It’s marketed as the “most professional and trustworthy site for veterinary medical advice and opinion on the Internet” — a forum with the potential to shore up funds to support VNN via advertising dollars and eventually, user-fee revenue.

VNN President Dr. Jim Humphries says that support from a WVC educational grant has nearly dried up, prompting the media company to become more financially self-sufficient. While Humphries refuses to get specific on the grant or the funds needed to remain solvent, he explains that almost 400 veterinarians in the United States and Canada operate as VNN affiliate reporters, delivering VNN-produced veterinary material in the form of television, radio and print news that's fed to local media outlets. VNN trains its reporters to work with consumer media and serves as a resource for them, even providing radio show talking points and print column ideas.

“We are like the AP (Associated Press),” Humphries says.

Why is VNN needed? Humphries says it evolved in 2005, to guide veterinarians who, for the most part, aren’t naturals when it comes to developing media savvy or an on-air presence.

PetDocs on Call fills an equally unique niche, he says. “There are only a handful of these sites; no one is really doing it on a large scale. Our goal is to inform the client and refer them back to the veterinarian because frankly, there is a lot of bad information out there.”

According to Humphries, an opinion poll conducted with VNN reporters cemented his assessment: “They said, ‘Finally, there will be a place that I can trust to send my clients to.’ We want to basically be a trusted, interactive source online for good information.”

Whether or not the competition dishes out “bad information” is a matter of opinion. A quick Google search brings up a few Internet sites that feature DVM advice lines, including http://www.justanswer.com/veterinary, which charges registered users nominal but varying rates to speak with the site's veterinarian experts. Representatives did not return VIN News Service interview requests by press time, but it appears that at least a dozen veterinarians consult on owner-initiated topics for fees that range from $15 to $60 per answer.

For $9, owners used to get medical advice from http://www.petplace.com, which prompted concern on Veterinary Information Network (VIN) message boards. The company has since eliminated the service in question.

PetPlace representatives declined to give a reason for the decision, although online ask/answer formats have been criticized by practitioners for their “doc-in-a-box” approach, which gives rise to concerns about diagnosing or giving medical advice without a veterinary-client-patient relationship.

The VIN News Service contacted PetPlace in January. At the time, a veterinarian explained that the site employed two full-time DVMs and a slew of veterinarian consultants, all of whom are “very cautious about giving advice” and most often direct users to see a veterinarian.

What's more, the petplace site, which claims about 1 million unique visitors each month, is chock full of articles on animal health and medicine.

"Veterinarians love us because they can send their clients to us to get some credible, accurate information that can be downloaded," Dr. Deborah Primovic, the site's managing editor told the VIN News Service in January.

Humphries says the same thing about PetDocs on Call, almost verbatim, and adds that he’s spent countless hours with attorneys researching state practices acts, which can vary on the specifics of veterinary-client-patient relationships.

“It is not our intention to diagnose or treat animals,” he says. “Our goal is to inform people with advice that comes from veterinarians, not dog trainers.”

But superficial advice with a “see your vet” tagline is not what many people visiting these sites are looking for, at least in Dr. Paul Pion’s experience.

VIN, co-founded by Pion, now president, was born in the early 1990s from the Pet Care Forum on AOL, one of the first pet/veterinary advice services online. Pet Care Forum had an active and interactive community, with open question and answer interchanges between pet owners and between pet owners and veterinarians. Sometimes it was a positive exchange, but all too often, Pion recalls that many of the pet owners who visited the site weren’t seeking general advice. They were trying to avoid a trip to the veterinarian’s office. And it became more apparent after the Pet Care Forum moved from AOL to the Web.

Soon after, "we decided to discontinue the community and almost all of the Ask a Vet sections and focus on providing advertising- and sponsorship-free content so that VIN members and other colleagues would have a place to send clients without wondering who was generating the content or whether their clients would be put off because they were directed to a bunch of ads by their veterinarian,” Pion says.

What evolved now is called Veterinary Partner, and it is a searchable archive of medical information that explores topics ranging from diseases and surgeries to drugs and husbandry.

"We can't promise that everything is correct; no one can make that claim," Pion says. "But we can promise that we do our best to review the material internally with colleagues before it is published and that it is presented with no commercial bias. We review all content periodically and very much depend upon feedback from colleagues and even pet owners to point us to content errors."

(VIN is the parent organization of Veterinary Partner as well as the VIN News Service.)

Like PetDocs On Call, active interchange between owners and online veterinarians still exists on the Veterinary Partner site, but on a limited basis. About five to 10 questions come in daily, and they are answered by a handful of VIN members who enjoy the interchange, Pion says. The service is free to the public, and answers often direct owners to their veterinarian or to medical material in the Veterinary Partner library, much of which is written by Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, Dipl. ABVP.

"We don't actively promote the 'ask-a-doc' service, and if these colleagues ever decided they didn't want to pursue this 'hobby' anymore, we'd discontinue that section of the site," Pion says.

He adds that it will be interesting to see how the online question/answer model that sites like PetPlace and Veterinary Partner have largely abandoned will continue to be received by the public and the veterinary profession.



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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