Who’s on VIN?

Online community debates merits of exclusivity; panel report clarifies access policies for non-veterinarians

June 4, 2010 (published)
By Jim Downing

Who Has VIN Access

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Trying to address privacy and transparency concerns of its veterinary members, the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) has revised and clarified the rules of access to its online communities.

The new policy settles a number of uncertainties that were highlighted in a 260-post discussion on VIN’s message boards starting last August. A report prepared by a 14-member panel serves as a guide and reference for the new policy. Panel members were drawn from the larger VIN community, which includes members and staff of VIN and the Veterinary Support Personnel Network (VSPN). The document is itself a key advance, as VIN previously did not have a formal access policy.

The report defines 23 membership subgroups. It spells out who will have access to which parts of the VIN community and in which of VIN’s directories each category of members will appear. The document also specifies which group (such as VIN staff or VIN consultants) will be responsible for periodically reviewing members of each subgroup for continued membership eligibility.

The report also sets in motion several changes:

• Starting with academic pharmacists, veterinary school faculty who do not hold a veterinary degree will be invited to have their access to VIN’s Vet-to-Vet message boards reinstated. VIN leadership withdrew their access indefinitely following last summer’s message board discussion. Veterinary school librarians who do not hold a veterinary degree will be offered a similar invitation.

• Next year, VIN management tentatively plans to launch an enhanced service for support personnel employed by VIN member veterinarians. The project, called VSPN-Plus, is envisioned as a hybrid of the current VIN and VSPN services, giving veterinary support staff access to many of VIN’s reference tools but not the VIN message boards.

• A new folder in VIN’s online message boards will be reserved exclusively for veterinarians. Similarly, support personnel such as veterinary technicians and practice managers will have an exclusive message board folder on VSPN. Both folders are scheduled to appear in the next 30 days.

VIN’s online community was created in 1991 as a forum for veterinarians and veterinary students around the world to share resources and experiences and learn from a community whose membership has grown to nearly 45,000 veterinarians, veterinary students, veterinary faculty and veterinary industry representatives. Initially, the community was open to all veterinary professionals, including staff without veterinary degrees. But after repeated problems in the community’s first few years, such as veterinary staff maligning veterinarians, VIN’s leadership created VSPN and locked most non-veterinarians out of VIN. Some non-veterinarians, however, have been given full or partial access to the boards on the grounds that they help to further VIN’s stated mission: to inspire and facilitate excellence in the global veterinary community.

Most individual VIN members pay a monthly membership fee of $58, with exceptions including group rates for multi-veterinarian practices and free memberships for veterinary students and veterinary school academics. Access to VSPN is free to veterinary support personnel.

In the past, non-veterinarians were granted access to VIN at the discretion of the community’s administrators, including Co-founder and President Dr. Paul Pion. As of early August 2009, roughly 700 non-veterinarians had either full access to the message boards or access to archived discussions. This group was diverse, including veterinary technicians, practice managers, pharmacists, veterinary industry employees, veterinary school faculty and staff, and VIN employees, contractors and consultants (see table).

The presence of these non-veterinarians had been discussed a number of times on the VIN message boards. But VIN’s access policy wasn’t formally documented beyond these online discussions. As the 260-post discussion launched in August showed, many members had assumed the Vet-to-Vet section of the message boards could be seen only by veterinarians.

The discussion was triggered when 475 non-veterinarians, including 220 veterinary technicians and practice managers and 255 others — mainly veterinary school staff — lost their access to archived Vet-to-Vet message board discussions.

These 475 individuals previously had “group” memberships with their employer or another veterinarian who “vouched” for them and agreed to be responsible for their actions within the VIN community. The group members did not have access to the live Vet-to-Vet message boards but did have access to the VIN database — everything available through the site’s search function, which includes the Vet-to-Vet message board archives. The access change was intentional and made possible by a software upgrade that gave finer-grained control of which parts of the site are accessible to individual members. Before the upgrade, it was not possible to restrict a member’s access to the message board archives while still providing access to the rest of the VIN database.

One of the technicians who lost access to the message board archives started a discussion on the VSPN message boards. That thread prompted VIN member Dr. Sarah Johnson to start a discussion among her veterinary colleagues on VIN.

“How many ‘non-vet’ members does VIN include?” Johnson asked in her post. “I was under the impression that only a few practice mgrs/consultants had VIN access … is this actually a much larger number?”

In the thread that followed, Pion encouraged discussion on the issue. He explained that only a limited number of non-veterinarians had access to the message boards and that misconduct was rare.

Nonetheless, many members were alarmed to learn that the message boards had been open to any non-veterinarians at all.

“I am seriously considering canceling my VIN membership as a result of this thread,” wrote Dr. Joel Huehn, a San Antonio-based veterinarian. “I have always participated (and paid for that participation) on VIN under the assumption that it was a secure site (on which) I could confide to … and engage with other veterinarians in confidence.”

The thread highlighted differences among members concerning the benefits and drawbacks of access for non-veterinarians.

The majority of members posting felt the Vet-to-Vet boards ought to be limited strictly to individuals with veterinary degrees and veterinary students. In general, this group saw exclusivity on the message boards as a plus. Veterinarians, they argued, will write most candidly if they are confident that only their veterinary colleagues are reading.

“We live in a world where people have faults,” Dr. Lisa Bennett, who contributed 17 posts to the thread, said in an interview. “If we make a mistake, we have to be able to discuss it so we can learn how to best deal with it. When others are looking in, we can't be as frank.”

Others didn’t see a benefit from increased privacy, arguing instead that VIN ought to do more to give support staff access to the Vet-to-Vet boards.

“I just can't get on this VIN = vet only bus,” wrote Dr. Elizabeth Gray in the thread. “I get all happy when my staff wants to find something out on this incredible resource. It means they are thinking, they are invested in what they are doing and they are motivated to keep doing better. Isn't that what this site is about?”

In a recent interview, Pion said he found the thread confusing because he had thought most VIN members understood that selected non-veterinarians had access to the message boards.

“More than at any other time in the history of VIN, it felt like I was out of sync with the VIN community,” he said.

Pion felt the need to move quickly to respond to members’ concerns. In September, he made what he later said was a very difficult decision: to limit VIN community access exclusively to veterinarians — with exceptions for VIN staff members and consultants — pending a review of access policies by the VIN community.

“The most negative part was knowing that this action would send the message that ‘You’re not an important part of our profession,’ to those non-veterinarians who have made this profession their home,” Pion said.

“This is exactly the message we don’t want to send; I understood and understand the community’s concerns, but we should cherish every non-veterinarian who chooses to commit to our profession. We need them to feel essential to our success, because they are,” he said.

According to figures provided by VIN Operations Manager Karen James, from September 2009 through January 2010, VIN reviewed 812 members whose credentials were in question or who were known not to hold a veterinary degree. Of those, 431 retained full VIN privileges while 381 lost access to varying degrees (see table).

The members who lost access made up a small fraction of the VIN community, which as of April 1 included 27,372 practicing veterinarians, 13,659 veterinary students and 2910 veterinary degree-holders in academia and industry.

The 14-member access policy review panel was created in October at the annual in-person meeting of the VIN Board of Directors. At Pion’s request, Dr. Colin McHugh, who became the panel’s chairman, led an open discussion of the access issue at the meeting and presented the idea for the policy review panel. McHugh, a board member of the VIN Foundation, the charitable arm of the VIN community, had been an active participant in the 260-post message board discussion. Pion wanted somebody other than himself to lead the policy review process and felt McHugh would do the job well.

At the board meeting, it became clear that the panel’s chief responsibility was to clarify which members have access to the various parts of VIN.

“However these decisions had been made in the past, the challenge was to get guidelines down in writing so that everyone concerned could see how (the decisions on access) would be made going forward,” McHugh said in an e-mail.

By December, McHugh and Pion, who was also on the committee, had assembled a panel made up of 10 other veterinarians as well as two VIN staff members: James, the operations manager; and Nanette Walker Smith, a credentialed veterinary technician and VSPN’s content and continuing education director. McHugh and Pion said the makeup of the committee was designed to represent the range of perspectives expressed in the message board discussion.

While the message board thread had been heated in places, the committee was able to find common ground fairly quickly, said member Dr. Teri Ann Oursler, who had argued in the thread in favor of limiting access.

There was little dispute, for instance, over the potential value to the VIN community of professionals such as pharmacists and lawyers, Oursler said.

“If we exclude them, we’re hurting ourselves,” Oursler said. “We can’t be experts in all fields.”

It also became clear, Oursler said, that much of the opposition to non-veterinarians voiced in the message board thread had been based on a misunderstanding of VIN’s access policy.

“I think the biggest concern for people … was that every Tom, Dick and Harry assistant and technician could get on there and read old posts. And really and truly, that wasn’t the way things were ever set up,” said Oursler, who runs a solo practice in Powell, Wyo.

The committee’s final report, released in an April message board post, divides the VIN community into 23 categories, each with a specific set of permissions.

The structure outlined in the report, however, hasn't yet been fully implemented because it presumes three significant changes to VIN and VSPN.

Those changes include:

• The creation of “VSPN-Plus.” This proposed new service would give veterinary support staff, working in VIN member hospitals, access to more information than is currently available through VSPN. Members would likely get access to most of the VIN database (the information accessible through the “Search” tab) and the VIN library. VSPN-Plus members would not have access to the Vet-to-Vet message boards — live or archived. VSPN members currently do not have access to the VIN database. According to Pion, if implemented, VSPN-Plus members would likely be counted, and charged a membership fee, as part of the group membership of the VIN member who employs them. VSPN would remain free.

• The creation of a “Veterinarians only” folder in the Vet-to-Vet board. Under the report’s guidelines, threads in this folder (and its archives) would be viewable only to veterinarians, veterinary students and veterinary degree-holders in academia and industry.  Other folders in the Vet-to-Vet message board will be accessible by anyone with a VIN login — i.e., those with a “Yes” in the “Access Portal — VIN Login” column in the table included in the report.

• The creation of a “non-veterinarian only” folder on VSPN and/or VSPN-Plus. This folder would be accessible to veterinary hospital support staff and veterinary technician students. Veterinarians would be explicitly excluded.

The new VIN and VSPN folders are scheduled to appear in the next 30 days. VSPN may launch sometime next year.

In the near term, Pion plans to invite back several groups of members whose access VIN limited in the last year. Pharmacists employed as academic instructors will be invited to return to the site shortly, he said. These members will be given full access to the message boards, pending the creation of the veterinarian-only folders. Academic librarians likely will be the next group asked to return, Pion said, followed by veterinary school faculty with direct veterinary student teaching responsibilities.

It’s likely that only a few non-veterinarians outside of academia will be invited back, Pion said. “There’s a few who through the years have really tried to give back, and we’ll look at those on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “The question will be, have we lost something by not having them here?”

VIN may have difficulty attracting some former members back.

Skip Lenz, a pharmacist in Boca Raton, Fla. who specializes in animal health, lost access to the Vet-to-Vet boards in January as part of the purge of non-veterinarians. In the board archives, Lenz’s name appears in 151 clinical pharmacology discussions as well as many other threads dating back to 2002. In a recent interview, Lenz said he felt he deserved a better explanation for his removal from the community after years of contributions.

“All of a sudden people who I have never run across are having an issue with me being on,” Lenz said. “I'm more than just a little upset with it, both the way it was handled and the reason behind it.”

Lenz originally became a VIN member after being nominated by a veterinarian in his area and approved by VIN management. He said he would consider rejoining VIN if invited, depending on the conditions offered.

Michael Johnson, VIN’s Director of Possibilities, handles the organization’s outreach to industry. He has been responsible — along with Pion — for vetting industry members interested in joining VIN. Johnson briefed each of those members on the type of behavior that wouldn't be accepted on message boards, such as promoting products.

Johnson said he disagreed with Pion’s decision to take away site access from industry members who are not veterinarians pending the review by the access policy committee.

“I know these people personally, and I had some very strong rules that industry had to behave by,” Johnson said. “Really, we've done nothing but remove a group of people that were potentially helpful to VIN members, just because they didn’t have DVM behind their name,” he said.

Johnson and Pion said disciplinary problems with non-veterinarians have been rare.

Johnson said he was frustrated that VIN had acted without taking steps — such as conducting a survey — to determine how the membership at large felt about the issue.

“Have we really talked to the VIN community?” he asked.

According to figures provided by James, as of early May roughly 9,340 members — 21 percent of the VIN community — have viewed the August discussion on the access issue. About one-third as many have viewed the April thread announcing the access committee’s report. The more recent discussion drew 38 posts, half of which were contributed by committee members.

McHugh, the review panel chairman, said he hoped to reach more of the community. He and Pion are “pushing forward on additional methods to carry the message to the VIN membership,” but details have not been fixed, McHugh wrote in an e-mail.

Huehn, the Texas veterinarian who said last September that he was considering canceling his VIN membership, has remained a member. In an interview, he said he continues to use VIN nearly every day to search for information and solicit input from other veterinarians. Since the September discussion, however, Huehn has posted less frequently and less candidly on the boards, he said, because of his concern that what he writes may been seen by non-veterinarians.

“That whole revelation … has certainly changed the way that I post and will use VIN in the future,” he said.



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