News Banner  

 

Share:

Covetrus: 'Data harvest' article motivated by business rivalry

In letter, company calls story misleading; VIN president and VIN News director respond


March 5, 2019
By
Kini Schoop


I am writing with regard to an article published on Jan. 24, 2019, entitled, “Data harvest by Schein, Vets First Choice draws fire” for the VIN News Service. The article referenced contains significant errors, unsubstantiated claims, and fails to disclose VIN’s conflicts of interests.

The quotes in the article did not convey a complete picture of how we work with our customers. The article’s shortcomings include the following:

VIN is a direct competitor of Covetrus
VIN News Service failed to disclose that its parent company, VIN, owns a business, VINx that is a direct competitor to Covetrus (a new global company created by the merger of Vets First Choice and Henry Schein Animal Health). VINx offers services that are competitive to Covetrus.

VIN failed to disclose a significant conflict of interest
VIN News Service has a responsibility to provide accurate information and to disclose conflicts of interest when they exist. VINx is actively using its sister-company’s negative article about Vets First Choice to market VINx products to veterinarians. On Jan, 31, 2019, VINx sent emails to veterinarians with a link to the negative article about Vets First Choice and an advertisement for competitive VINx services. Nowhere in the article or the email did VIN disclose this conflict of interest.

There was no breach
VIN News Service states in the article that there were “instances of apparent privacy breach.” This is untrue and is a serious allegation against Vets First Choice. Simply put, there was no breach.

VIN News deliberately omitted key words in the AVImark agreement
The article deliberately inserted ellipses (…) to remove key language for no other purpose than to frighten readers.

By omitting key words and phrases of the AVImark agreement, it changed the context in an effort to cause readers to draw a conclusion contrary to the intended purpose of the language.  In fact, the information VIN omitted expressly states that personally identifiable information will not be exchanged or sold to third parties. Moreover, by omitting the language that describes how the data would be used to service customer accounts, VIN attempts to make some causal connection that the language “as needed for business purposes” would include something unscrupulous. In fact, the AVImark agreement includes plain language description of how the data would be used, including to deliver services back to the customer.

In actuality, the AVImark agreement states: “Individual Information that personally identifies clients or their pets, including financially identifiable information which would allow individual clinics or natural persons to be identified, will not be exchanged or sold. Information (including Individual Information) may be exchanged among HSVS, its subsidiaries, affiliates and service providers as needed for business purposes, such as account administration, customer service, transaction processing, consumer reporting, processing and delivery of account statements, research and analysis, and delivery of products and services.

Covetrus is among the most trusted and ethical operators in veterinary medicine, and we operate at the highest standards for quality, service, and security in our category. Acting with integrity, including protection of intellectual property, data privacy, and information security, are core values at VFC, HSAH and now, Covetrus. We hope that in the future the VIN News Service will apply appropriate standards of diligence and fact-checking.

Kini Schoop is director of public relations at Covetrus.


Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author(s) and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify accuracy of the content.


***

Response from Dr. Paul Pion, president, Veterinary Information Network

Thanks for sharing your concerns. As co-founder of VIN, I am happy to bring into the open issues we’ve previously discussed privately with Covetrus.

Since a VIN News Service article catalyzed this exchange, I’ll first make clear VIN’s and my relationship to the VIN News Service. VIN News is a part of VIN. It was created to give veterinarians a voice. VIN News reporters make all editorial choices independent of VIN or me. I and several other colleagues help point out where balancing views may be missing, provide insights into the profession and potential sources for stories, and when asked, proofread prior to publication. Beyond that, VIN News reporters decide what to cover and how to cover it.

This story, like the vast majority of VIN News stories, originated from veterinarians — VIN members and non-VIN members. Among both these groups of colleagues were members of the Veterinary Management Group who communicated their concerns in an email to Henry Schein’s chairman and CEO, Stanley Bergman.

The concerns fell into two main categories:

  • Users of Henry Schein practice software were being asked to sign updated agreements (see below)
  • Vets First Choice contacted some clinics' clients without the clinic owners' approval

How the story evolved from there was based upon research and reporting by the VIN News Service. As always, anything shown to be flawed will be publicly corrected.

Addressing specific concerns:

Is VIN a direct competitor of Covetrus?
VINx, a small part of VIN, does provide some services that overlap with what VetStreet, now a part of Covetrus, offers: client portals, email and text reminders, and similar marketing support.  VINx was created to give colleagues an option where they can be assured their data would be used only for the benefit of their practice and to help the profession generate medical information (see below).

VINx serves a small number of hospitals and is not a competitor of any scale in the marketplace.

To my knowledge, VINx services do not overlap with any services that were offered by Vets First Choice.

Did VIN News fail to disclose a significant conflict of interest?
The potential conflict of interest was clearly defined in the first article of a two-part series about big data, published Aug. 22. Communication from Doug Monson, vice president of growth initiatives at Vets First Choice, now Covetrus, led VIN News to realize that these articles had not been linked to the "Data harvest" article as intended. The links were added soon after.

Did VINx use the article for competitive advantage?
Readers of the VIN News article contacted VINx to ask if they should be concerned about the use of their data. VINx responded with a communication via email and social media to reassure current users, as well as veterinarians who had expressed interest in VINx. The message was not distributed to the veterinary community at large, nor was it repeated, as would be done with an advertisement. Although it was not the intent, I do see how a single, limited-audience communication could be interpreted as a competitive effort rather than simply a reassuring response to concerned colleagues.

Was there a breach?
The VIN News article states there were “instances of apparent privacy breach.” Without context, that statement could be misconstrued. There was no data breach in that Vets First Choice did not, and I assume would never, illegally access the databases of any veterinarians. However, many colleagues reported experiencing a breach of their information and trust when Vets First Choice emailed offers to their clinics' clients without their foreknowledge. These colleagues felt that Vets First Choice sending the emails constituted a breach of their trust and privacy.

In a telephone conversation, Monson told me the company had the legal right to access client databases and to email clients in each of the cases referenced in the article. I have no reason to disbelieve that. However, I’ve heard stories of paper trails so circuitous that clinic owners didn’t know they had granted permission. In one example, the trail goes back more than a decade to agreements signed by the prior owner that the current clinic owner knew nothing about.

As I wrote to Monson in our prior communications, my desire is for colleagues to be aware of what is happening with their data and for all who handle colleague data to treat it with respect.  This would include an opt-in for every and any use of the data, and clear, standardized, terms and conditions and privacy policies for patient, client, and practice data across all services.

It would include asking practices for explicit acceptance of terms and conditions and data-privacy policies, and requesting renewed acceptance whenever a change to terms, conditions and/or policies is made. It would mean not just meeting legal standards, but meeting and exceeding the expectations of veterinarians, and honoring the trust they confer when they agree to share the very heart of their data.

For instance:

  • Rather than demanding customers agree to open-ended use of personally identifiable information for all “business purposes,” provide a closed list of agreed uses.
  • After purchasing or merging with another company, and even though all customer contracts may be assignable, invite all customers to opt in again to all terms that impact communications with their clients.
  • Rather than demanding customers agree that individual information can be shared with all “service providers,” which essentially is anyone you ever do business with in the future, limit the world of disclosure.

Did VIN News omit key words in the AVImark agreement?
This point perhaps best demonstrates that Covetrus doesn’t recognize the core issue its customers are concerned about.

The key words are not those VIN News replaced with ellipses. The key words are the ones Covetrus’ letter to the editor fails to emphasize.

Yes, colleagues would be upset if personally identifiable information were exchanged or sold to third parties. But that’s not the concern that catalyzed the news story. These veterinarians, aware of the upcoming merger, were concerned that they were being asked to sign an agreement that states:

Information (including Individual Information) may be exchanged among HSVS, its subsidiaries, affiliates and service providers as needed for business purposes, such as account administration, customer service, transaction processing, consumer reporting, processing and delivery of account statements, research and analysis, and delivery of products and services.

and

HSVS may also share information with joint marketing partners to present certain offers to you, but these parties will only be able to access and use your personal information for this limited purpose.

Their concern was that they did not want their use of a Henry Schein practice management system to confer access to their data to Vets First Choice without their explicit consent. Some wanted the option to say no.

Their concern was that the words “such as” (underlining added for emphasis) denotes an open-ended universe of possible uses, not limited to the list of examples given in the agreement. This wording choice leaves the possible uses wide open.

As an example of what I am advocating for colleagues, here is the wording VINx uses:

(d) that we use any information that identifies individual Clients only to provide Services and support the Software; and (e) that we may use any information that does not identify individual Clients only for veterinary medicine research conducted at VIN's direction. We specifically confirm that Data may not be shared, sold, rented, or otherwise disclosed to anyone by us or by VIN except as provided for above, irrespective of whether or not it identifies individual Clients (e.g., we will not provide Data to any distribution, marketing or pharmaceutical companies).

Covetrus is a new entity, and I indeed hope it will live up to the standard you quoted and be “among the most trusted and ethical operators in veterinary medicine.” It certainly has a solid foundation in carrying the Henry Schein brand.

Nothing would please me more than to see VIN News able to publish an article highlighting how the new business practices of Covetrus, and the contracts you ask veterinarians to sign going forward, demonstrate respect for their data and their right to control how it is used.

* * *

Response from Edie Lau, VIN News Service director

Because accuracy is our top priority, the VIN News Service takes any claim of errors seriously. The letter writer identifies one phrase as incorrect: "instances of apparent privacy breach." We stand by the wording.

Veterinarians interviewed by the reporter perceived the situation as exactly that: a breach of their privacy. A breach of their confidence. A breach of their trust. Regardless whether any had signed an agreement to do business with Vets First Choice, none expected the company to email their clients to offer discounts about which they had not been consulted, let alone authorized.

Calling the situation an "apparent privacy breach" is not accusing Vets First Choice of committing a crime. Rather, it reflects affected veterinarians' concern that information in their computers had been extracted and used for a purpose that they did not intend or expect. For a company that purported to put the veterinarian first, Vets First Choice surprisingly did not express concern about the perceived breach.

In quoting the AVImark licensing agreement, the article does omit some words. The agreement is written in wordy legalese common to most such agreements. To help the reader quickly see the passage that causes concern to veterinarians, the story uses a partial quotation and deploys ellipses to indicate missing words. The story links to the document so that readers may read it in its entirety. A review of the full wording, as quoted in the letter, will show that it does not contradict the story. It corroborates it.

On the issue of disclosure about VIN News Service's relationship to VIN: VIN News stories frequently include a statement that our parent is VIN. We neglected to state that in this article, and that was an oversight. We have since added the disclosure. We believe in full transparency and thank Covetrus for holding us to the high standards to which we aspire.

VIN is a multifaceted organization that is ever-changing in its quest to be useful to the veterinary community. While the VIN News Service is part of VIN, we on the news team do not necessarily know of every VIN activity. It is not our job to promote VIN. We are more likely to choose not to report on a VIN venture than otherwise, for the very reason that we don't wish to come across as VIN's public-relations arm. However, we need to be aware that that suspicion exists, especially when we report on a company that might perceive VIN as a business competitor. We will do better.

The "Data harvest" article originated not to promote VINx but because we heard from veterinarians who had a concern. VIN News staff writer Lisa Wogan spent four months reporting the story. At the outset, the story focused on the AVImark licensing agreement and some users' reluctance to sign a renewal due to the data-privacy question.

To inform the companies of veterinarians' concerns and to request comment, Wogan telephoned a Henry Schein Inc. media representative and sent emails to him and to Vets First Choice listing her questions and requesting interviews.

A Schein representative responded and asked about the story deadline. Six weeks later, he had not answered the questions, provided a company statement or explained why there would be no response, despite three follow-up emails from Wogan reminding him of her query.

In December, Wogan learned of multiple veterinarians who believed their client data had been used by Vets First Choice without authorization. The VIN News team judged the issue to be related to the AVImark license agreement because of the shared data concerns and because the companies were about to merge.

On Jan. 15, Kini Schoop, newly hired at Vets First Choice, contacted Wogan by email to introduce herself and say that she had been informed by Schein about the story. Glad to meet a responsive company representative, Wogan answered with a detailed rundown of the story and a list of questions. She also asked to interview Ben Shaw, then CEO of Vets First Choice, now CEO of Covetrus.

On Jan. 19, Schoop responded that Shaw was not available for an interview. She provided a copy of Vets First Choice's "Data Privacy Values" and offered this general statement:

Acting with integrity, including protection of intellectual property, data privacy and information security, is a core value at Vets First Choice. We operate at best practices and in accordance with state and federal laws. We ensure explicit permission from veterinarians for all actions, and practices have full control of the platform.

The article quotes the statement and links to the data-privacy document.

Schoop also told Wogan: "As I understand (per the VIN website) VIN News Service welcomes letters about articles published within the past 30 days. I will be in touch if VFC would like to issue a response following the publishing of your story."

We always welcome letters to the editor and we appreciate the communications from Covetrus. Still, it's disappointing that Henry Schein and Vets First Choice opted not to have an in-depth conversation with VIN News before the story was published. The article would then have presented the companies' perspectives. By not engaging in interviews, company leaders missed an opportunity to explain why veterinarians should entrust them with one of their most valuable business assets — their data.

There remain many unanswered questions. How will Covetrus use veterinary client data to which it has access? Does Covetrus consider data pulled from practice information management software as belonging to the veterinarian or to the company? What safeguards are in place to ensure that client information is not used by the company to direct-market to a hospital's clients? What happens to hospital data in the company's possession after the hospital cancels service?

We look forward to continued conversations with Covetrus to hear the company's answers to these important questions.




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.



Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.




Share:


View all articles


 

Search VIN news

Example: Enter Meth* to find Methimazole.

Recent stories



See more stories »

All news categories





Follow us

VIN News Facebook Twitter RSS feed



Email alerts

Sign up to receive email alerts when new articles are published.