‘The Incredible Dr. Pol’ asserts innocence despite board discipline

Star of reality TV show placed on probation

Published: October 08, 2012
By Edie Lau

Photo by Neil Blake/Midland Daily News
Dr. Jan Pol, a mixed animal practitioner in central Michigan, stars in a popular National Geographic Channel reality television series. Pol recently was disciplined and placed on probation by the Michigan Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Television star and veterinarian Dr. Jan Pol says he wasn’t negligent or incompetent in a case involving a litter of stillborn puppies, despite being disciplined on those charges in May by state regulators.

The Michigan Board of Veterinary Medicine placed the star of “The Incredible Dr. Pol” on probation for up to a year, levied a $500 fine and ordered him to complete continuing-education courses in documentation and record-keeping; small animal reproduction; and ultrasound techniques and interpretation.

Citing the disciplinary action, another veterinarian started an online petition today to try to get Pol's show off the air, saying that it "promotes substandard medicine to the public."

An associate at Pol Veterinary Services in Weidman, Mich., also was disciplined by the Michigan board for her involvement in the same case. The associate was placed on probation until she completes continuing-education training on the same subjects.

Pol told the VIN News Service that his clinic made no mistakes in the case apart from a failure to document all conversations with the pregnant dog’s owners. He said he agreed to the disciplinary action on the advice of his lawyer to put the complaint to rest.

“He said, ‘Just get it out of your hair’ ... so that’s what I did,” Pol said, adding that now he regrets not contesting the charges.

He also said he understood the complaint to be confined to inadequate record-keeping and did not think that he was disciplined for negligence and incompetence. “There was nothing said at the hearing. It was all about, ‘You didn’t write the phone calls down.’ That was it,” Pol said.

A consent order and stipulation issued by the disciplinary subcommittee of the veterinary board, which operates under the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Bureau of Health Professions, lays out the violations and disciplinary action. The document states that the allegations were found to be true and constitute violations of sections 16221(a) and 16221(b)(i) of the Public Health Code. Those sections of the code reference "negligence or failure to exercise due care" and "incompetence."

The order states that Pol is required as part of the disciplinary action to take courses in small animal reproduction and ultrasound techniques and interpretation. Asked why he would have to take those courses if his only failure was record-keeping, Pol replied that when he saw those stipulations, "That was surprising to me.”

Pol's lawyer, Arthur Jalkanen, told the VIN News Service that the case boils down to a record-keeping problem because without written documentation, Pol was unable to fend off the rest of the charges.

"If he had good records, we wouldn't be in this position," Jalkanen said in an interview today. "As they taught us in law school, if it isn't written down, it didn't happen. Apparently, they don't teach that in veterinary school."

The complaint was the first to be filed in Michigan against Pol, 70, who said he has practiced in the state for 41 years.

The case behind the complaint occurred in spring 2010, more than a year before the premiere of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” a reality television show on Nat Geo Wild, a National Geographic Channel network. The program follows Pol through his work days ministering to cows, goats, dogs and all the other species of patients that come with a rural mixed animal practice.

Now in its second season, the show has become Nat Geo Wild’s highest-rated telecast, according to TV By the Numbers. The show’s Facebook page shows more than 13,000 “likes.”

Pol said he assumed the network was aware of the disciplinary action against him because such actions are public information, but a spokeswoman for National Geographic Channel, contacted Thursday by the VIN News Service, said she was unaware of Pol’s professional licensing status.

The organization appeared unfazed by the news. Spokeswoman Rajul Mistry provided a statement Friday that reflects continued support for Pol. The statement reads:

“It is an undisputed fact that Dr. Pol has helped thousands of animals throughout his 40-year career as a veterinarian. His very successful clinic has been in business for 30 years, where residents of Michigan count on him to help their sick pets and farm animals. The recent fine placed on Dr. Pol is due to an administrative complaint, not malpractice or misdiagnosis. He will regularly see patients and within one month (will) have taken a 3-day course, lifting the probation.”

Others learning of the disciplinary action were less sympathetic to Pol. In a comment posted Friday on the website of the Midland Daily News, which ran an article last fall about Pol’s television show, an unidentified reader applauded the Michigan board’s action, writing: “The public should know that this is NOT acceptable care.”

A number of veterinarians, after seeing episodes or excerpts of “The Incredible Dr. Pol,”  have expressed similar views on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession. (VIN is the parent of VIN News Service.)

Many said they were aghast and embarrassed by the casual approach to medicine portrayed on the program — sedated patients transported in the back of a pickup, a sedated patient left unattended on a table, procedures performed without gloves, masks or medical drapes, and so on.

“I am so sad,” wrote Dr. Lauren Robins, a practitioner in Texas. “Why can’t we follow one of our best?”

“I can’t believe this guy has a TV show,” said Dr. Richard Selkowitz, a clinic owner on Long Island in New York. “... We watch the show in our house just for the cringe-worthy, train-wreck entertainment.”

A few, however, cautioned against a rush to judgment.

“Any one of us could be filmed doing our every day ‘great medicine,’ and it could be edited to look otherwise,” said Dr. Lisa Hoberg, a veterinarian in Oregon. “This show is not for vets, it is for the public.”

Dr. Sharon Shull, a practitioner in Texas, said: "I watched part of [an] episode last night. Kind of enjoyed it and gotta admit that he must be doing something right, as it was said on the episode that he has over 19,000 clients! Some of us could only wish for a fraction of that number. Regardless, he may be out of date on some things, but his practice is the reality of some areas."

The case for which Pol was disciplined appears to exemplify the relaxed style of medicine that appalls some of his colleagues.

The formal complaint by the disciplinary subcommittee of the Michigan Board of Veterinary Medicine gives this account:

A German shorthair dog named Mocha was bred on Jan. 30, 2010, and calculated by her owner to be due on April 3. The owner, identified only by the initials D.S., called Pol’s clinic three times between April 3 and April 8 to report that Mocha had not yet delivered.

“D.S. was told she did not need to bring the dog to the facility, that Mocha should be able to have the puppies on her own and to let nature take its course,” the complaint reads. “A facility veterinarian told D.S. to call the facility on April 9, 2010, if Mocha had not given birth by then. The veterinarian failed to document the telephone calls.”

The complaint goes on to say that D.S.’s husband, R.S., called on April 9 to say that Mocha had not delivered; he was given a 10 a.m. appointment. He called back a few minutes later to report that the dog had a brownish-green mucus discharge. He was told that the dog might be beginning labor and instructed to keep Mocha by herself in a quiet place and to call back in the afternoon if she had not delivered.

When by evening Mocha hadn’t delivered, one of Pol’s associates examined the dog and stated that Mocha wasn’t dilated but that she would likely deliver the puppies in the next day or two. The doctor did not document her recommendations.

The next day, D.S. called the clinic to report that Mocha’s belly “looked skinny and was hanging low.” A third veterinarian responded that Mocha would likely deliver later that day and to let nature takes it course. This call also went undocumented.

On April 12, D.S. returned with Mocha to the clinic. An associate veterinarian examined Mocha by ultrasound, told the owner she did not detect any movement, and called Pol into the room. Pol “looked at the ultrasound, informed D.S. that he saw movement in the ultrasound and stated that D.S. had Mocha’s due date wrong” and sent the dog home.

D.S. took Mocha to another clinic that same day for a second opinion. A veterinarian there took an ultrasound, detected no movement, and performed a Caesarian section.

The doctor “found 10 dead puppies inside Mocha, covered in brownish-green mucus,” the complaint reads. “The ... veterinarian stated that the puppies probably had been dead for at least three to four days.”

Pol's account of what happened is different. He told the VIN News Service that Mocha’s owner wanted a Caesarian section done right away. “The dog wasn’t ready,” he said. “There was no milk, no discharge, nothing. I did an ultrasound; I found live pups. ... I’ve done my number of C-sections,” he added. “I know what I’m doing.”

Pol said the veterinarian consulted for the second opinion worked briefly for him 20 years ago and they parted on bad terms. Pol speculated that that veterinarian “botched the C-section,” causing the puppies’ death, then pointed the finger at Pol to deflect blame.

The VIN News Service asked Dr. Tony Johnson, a board-certified criticalist at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and an emergency medicine consultant for VIN, to review the complaint against Pol and provide his perspective. Johnson observed that the facts as laid out by the complaint may appear damning, but the document does not present Pol’s rebuttal.

“If what is presented in the complaint is factual, then he was overly relaxed on this one ...” Johnson said. “(But) if the due date was calculated wrong and the discharge was described wrong by the owners, maybe he did not err.”

Johnson noted that determining due dates in dogs is tricky because conception sometimes occurs days after breeding. “You can breed a dog on a Monday, and it can not become pregnant until the following Monday,” he said.

Also missing from the narrative, Johnson said, is medical documentation. “We are operating without a pathology report,” he noted. “We don’t have a specialist in puppies who has evaluated the case. These are all opinions flavored by everybody’s own agenda.”

Johnson added: “The one thing you cannot talk away would be the lack of record-keeping. He’s at least culpable and on the hook for that, but so are probably 90 percent of veterinarians with regards to keeping records of client communications. You can’t record every single conversation you have with owners.”

Pol acknowledged not keeping thorough records but said tracking every phone call is challenging for a small operation. “I was here by myself the Saturday before Labor Day, and between 8 and 2, we had 40 phone calls,” he said.

Addressing criticisms by some veterinarians that his approach to medicine is unsophisticated and outdated, Pol said, “We are living in Michigan where the economy is bad, and I help animals to the best of my ability and to the best of what people can afford. That’s the way I see it. ... To me, the owner of the animal has the last say. You cannot shame an owner into doing things he cannot afford.”

Pol also said he wasn’t keen on starring in a television show but did it as a favor to his son, an aspiring movie producer who pitched the idea to National Geographic Channel.

“I said, ‘Who wants to watch me?’ I said, ‘We do things different here. We’re going to have complaints,’ ” Pol said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

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