Reaction to exposé on veterinarians clouds 20/20 piece

Criticism, misinformation impact all players

December 10, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

It’s been called sensational, disappointing, irresponsible and exploitive. Now more than 3,000 petitioners want the ABC network and its 20/20 producers to correct and apologize for the Nov. 22 broadcast, “Is your veterinarian being honest with you?

So far, it doesn’t look like that will happen.

Critics are aiming their grievances at 20/20 via two petitions, one filed by Brook Farm Veterinary Center in New York’s Hudson Valley. Carla Tipiani, a staff member at a veterinary practice in Boca Raton, Fla., generated the second petition.

Both petitions — as well as an onslaught of news articles, commentaries and online posts from pet owners and affronted veterinarians — carry the same message: Given the segment’s premise, sources interviewed and even the undercover patients (two 5-year-old dogs named Maeby and Honey), 20/20 went out of its way to disparage veterinarians, using hidden cameras and editing to paint the profession as money-grubbing business owners looking to squeeze clients by pushing vaccines, dental care or unnecessary surgical procedures.

“I’m very happy about the response we’ve had,” Tipiani said of her petition. “I’m hoping this will get their attention.”

It has, and ABC News isn’t apologetic.

“20/20 is doing our part to educate consumers and give them the tools to make the best decisions to keep their pets healthy,” the network said in an emailed statement.

Veterinarians say they’re in the business of doing that, too, and the job’s harder now that 20/20 has injured the public’s trust in the profession, said Dr. Susan Gibbs of Florence, S.C.

Gibbs said on that she recently had two clients question her motives as a practitioner. “It is difficult enough to educate clients on the necessity of medical care in general, but most especially preventative care,” she wrote. “When irresponsible reporting on a popular news show occurs, it is so much more difficult to be an advocate for my patients. I can handle myself with these clients, but the animals suffer.”

The 20/20 exposé is among a handful of reports in recent years on veterinarians and the high cost of pet care, most deemed to be one-sided and disparaging by a profession that’s squeezed by competition, low starting salaries and, for new graduates, an average of more than $160,000 in student-loan debt.

Controversy aside, kernels of truth exist in 20/20’s reporting. The cost of veterinary care is increasing, much like human health care. Without insurance to offset veterinary care costs, the upfront price to pet owners can be daunting.

“I think people are being naïve if they think the veterinarian business wouldn’t up-sell like other businesses,” wrote Tammy, who declined to include her last name in a response to a blog post by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Another respondent named Leslie acknowledged that “no profession is perfect” but “after working in veterinary practice for 30 plus years, I have never heard such rubbish. … (This is) the worst 20/20 documentary I have ever seen.”

Critics of the 20/20 program say the show’s producers used discredited sources and editing to suggest that veterinarians are out to rip off clients, mainly by over-vaccinating and pushing needless dental procedures. In one instance, Maeby was taken to several New York- and New Jersey-area practices before a veterinarian suggested cleaning the dog’s teeth — a recommendation that came after several other veterinarians determined the dog had a negligible amount of calculus buildup.

The unsuspecting veterinarian recommended that Maeby undergo a dental examination and cleaning under anesthesia for an estimated $250. Another practitioner recommended the same for Honey at a cost of $300. The show portrayed the veterinarians as deceitful and did not mention that most veterinary dentists believe dental and periodontal disease is not apparent during routine examinations. What’s more, a gingival mass appeared on Honey’s gum line. Even though the mass was visible during the televised examination, it was not acknowledged or addressed during the program.

“It is impossible to assess for periodontal pockets without periodontal probing, and any abnormalities identified during examination require intraoral radiographs for assessment,” wrote the American Veterinary Dental Society in a statement prompted by the 20/20 broadcast. “This is no different than a human having a periodontal examination, periodontal probing and intraoral radiographs at their dentist’s office.”

The AVMA addressed the 20/20 report on Nov. 25, stating “We were highly disappointed in the segment for a variety of reasons …” The organization went on to say that its statement to ABC News was whittled down to a single, paraphrased sentence that was used out of context in the program.

Dr. Marty Becker, a practicing veterinarian and television personality interviewed by 20/20, says he cut ties with ABC after 17 years as the network’s veterinary contributor because the piece aired his statements out of context.

The 12-minute segment features Becker lamenting the risks of putting a dog under general anesthesia to perform needless dental cleanings — a statement he says was cherry-picked out of a 90-minute interview and inappropriately used to bolster an assertion that some veterinarians push dental procedures to overcharge clients and drive up profits. "They kept asking me the same questions over and over until they got what they wanted," he recalled of the interview.

The amount of hate mail he received from colleagues for being part of the report, Becker said, is unprecedented.

“I was just heartsick when I saw the segment,” Becker said by phone, stating that he had no idea about the show’s title or gotcha premise. “I promoted it on Facebook. That's how naïve I was."

After seeing the segment, Becker wrote a commentary stating that 20/20 producers misrepresented him on the program. It appeared on three days after the show aired.

ABC News didn’t ignore the allegation.

“They called me afterward and were upset about what I'd said online about how I was misrepresented,” he said. “We had quite a conversation.”

For its part, ABC News maintains it never duped Becker: “We did not misrepresent anything to Dr. Becker, either before, during or after our interview. And the comments from Dr. Becker that we included in our piece were presented accurately,” officials said by email.

The back-and-forth is doing little to appease practitioners angered by the piece. On the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession, some veterinarians are calling on the AVMA to craft a national campaign discrediting 20/20 and Dr. Andrew Jones, the segment’s lead narrator. Jones is a veterinarian from British Columbia who gave up his license in 2010 following a dispute with his medical board concerning his online marketing practices and ethical violations for which he was fined roughly $40,000.

Jones went on to write a book titled “Veterinary Secrets Revealed” and a DVD titled “Healing Your Pets at Home.” Both are sold via his website.

“A quick Internet search revealed that this Andrew Jones is just a bitter ex-veterinarian that was sanctioned NOT for espousing complimentary veterinary medicine, but rather publicly attacking his colleagues' practice of veterinary medicine,” Dr. Joseph DeLucia of Clifton, N.J., wrote on VIN.

“Dr. Jones does not deserve your support,” added Dr. Bryce Fleming, who practices in Saskatchewan, Canada. “His website had many incorrect statements which unjustly attacked our profession and made wild allegations about current veterinary practice.”

Jones, who grew up on a farm reading James Herriot, describes the hate mail he’s received since the 20/20 segment aired as prolific. If much of the veterinary profession finds the 20/20 piece to be discrediting, Jones says he now feels the finger pointing.

Jones hasn’t heard from a news reporter (apart from the VIN News Service) despite the fact that dozens of articles and blogs readily discredit him — some, he says, with reckless abandon.

For example, several reports — including one from syndicated columnist and radio show host Steve Dale — incorrectly named Jones as a source in an undercover exposé that aired in October in Canada and looked a lot like the 20/20 program.

“It’s generally disparaging of me, period,” Jones said of the misinformation. “The majority of comments I get are from veterinary and veterinary staff, asking how I could be so harmful to the veterinary community."

Jones says that while he’s outspoken and critical of some aspects of the profession, he’s been the target of misinformation perpetuated online. For starters, he was never stripped of his license but chose to relinquish it.

Both Jones and 20/20 producers maintain that the veterinarian did not seek out the show or pitch the report on veterinarians to producers. In fact, it was the other way around: “A former veterinarian, Andrew Jones is known for questioning certain practices within the veterinary profession, and has made his views public through websites and writings,” ABC News said by email.

Jones admits that while ABC did not pay more than his travel expenses to appear on 20/20, he presumed his exposure on the show might generate online sales of his books and other products.

That hasn’t happened, he said. When asked if he regretted the 20/20 interview, Jones hesitated. “I’ve identified myself as a veterinarian for 20 years,” he said. “This has shaken my identity.”

Upon further contemplation, Jones said his message is the same despite the flack.

“Clearly the story pushed a bunch of emotional hot buttons, and I was the face, so I got the strongest reaction,” he said. “It wasn’t as professional as it could have been, but I think the bulk of the piece was pretty fair. My message to pet owners is that most veterinarians are ethical, but this is a business and you need to be aware of that.”

The suggestion that some veterinarians overcharge clients is what got Jones in trouble three years ago with the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia. In September 2010, regulators found Jones guilty of unprofessional conduct for, in part, advertising his practice as "affordable" and "honest." He also was chided for authoring newsletters and a book guiding owners on how to avoid veterinary costs by treating their animals at home.

"Specifically, Dr. Jones' marketing activity was found to be highly self laudatory and manipulative, unverifiable and in extremely poor taste," the ruling said, accusing the veterinarian of damaging the reputation of his colleagues as well as the public's trust in the profession.

"Furthermore, it may prevent or delay the public from seeking appropriate veterinary care and lead to unnecessary pain and suffering in their animals," the ruling added. 

The same has been said about the 20/20 segment.



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