Advertise ethically, veterinarians

Advertise ethically, veterinarians

Avoid grandiose statements to promote your veterinary clinic—instead, stick to the facts and stay out of legal trouble.
Feb 01, 2014

Attitudes toward advertising and self-promotion have changed over the years, so take precaution before emblazoning your ad with superlative claims—it could cause a heap of trouble for your veterinary practice. (GETTY IMAGES/MARCUS CLACKSON, FUSE)
Relo County contains eight veterinary practices within its borders. It's a densely populated county with many upscale suburban communities. Just like many other areas around the country, Relo County has had its share of recent financial setbacks. The pet-owning public's discretionary income has shrunk substantially after the economic downturn.

To counter the effects of decreased revenue, local veterinarians have taken action. Some have established a significant social network presence on Facebook and Twitter. Others have adjusted fees and extended hours, while some have increased their advertising budgets. These are normal, healthy responses in an effort to bring pets to the clinic during challenging times.

Dr. Roy Linton graduated from veterinary school in 1973 and established his practice immediately after graduation. He is not as tech-savvy as some of the younger veterinarians and believes that honest advertising will let Relo County pet owners know about him and his practice. To that end, Dr. Linton has placed an advertisement in the Relo County Herald that says, "Let Relo County's most experienced veterinarian care for your pet's needs."

About two days after the ad appears in the paper, several of his neighboring veterinary colleagues are up in arms. They contend that Dr. Linton's ad is unethical, untrue and possibly illegal. When the veterinarians challenge Dr. Linton about the contents of the ad, his response is straightforward. He says his statement is the truth, and a person cannot be sanctioned for telling the truth. He maintains that he has been practicing for 40 consecutive years in Relo County. This is substantially longer than any of his colleagues and the basis for his claim.

Several of his veterinary neighbors argue that the amount of time someone has put into his or her career does not necessarily equate to experience. In the ad, the use of the term "most experienced" is vague. Does it refer to surgical experience, internal medicine experience or any and all facets of veterinary medicine? The fact that the statement is so vague causes the other veterinarians to feel slighted and at the same time misinforms the county's pet-owning public.

This ad and its disruptive impact on the veterinary community became a topic of discussion at the Relo County Veterinary Association meeting. Dr. Linton does not have a history of acting unethically. He believes his many years of practice in the county allow him to make what he sees as an honest claim. That said, he has no desire to start a contentious relationship with his longtime colleagues, and he certainly does not want a complaint filed with the state board of veterinary examiners. He offers to delete the word "most" from his ad if this will satisfy his colleagues. Everyone agrees that this is a reasonable solution, and the controversy is put to rest.

Rosenberg's response

Attitudes toward veterinary advertising and self-promotion have changed over the years. There was a time when veterinarians were both sanctioned and shunned by the profession if they advertised or even appeared in radio, print or TV media. In recent years, however, this has changed. Any veterinary professional should have the right to ethically present and promote his or her practice credentials.

However, an ethical line is crossed when veterinarians advertise themselves in a superlative way. A clinician cannot claim to be the "best," the "finest" or the "top" performer in his or her discipline. This is not only unethical but in many states it's illegal. A superlative claim of practice skills cannot be substantiated as it pertains to veterinary practice. In addition, such claims are misleading to pet owners. Dr. Linton was well-intentioned, but he was wrong. His decision to alter the ad was the right thing to do.

Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, N.J. He is a member of the New Jersey Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.