Consumer Reports raises profession's ire

Consumer Reports raises profession's ire

Jul 01, 2003

A concerted outcry of veterinarians, stung by a Consumer Reports (CR) article implying pet owners may be victims of veterinary pricing strategies, has fueled key associations to retaliate with letters to the editors and to the profession.

Sparking debate is a story published in the July 2003 issue, titled "Veterinary Care Without the Bite." The article, according to CR, provides information on how consumers can save money, how the business works and how to maintain quality care for pets.

But veterinarians argue the article paints them purely as "money-grubbing price gougers."

The six-page report, heavy on pricing and light on veterinary input, tells the consumer "how to save thousands of dollars on veterinary care by planning and shopping carefully."

Examples include:

  • "You don't have to buy prescription drugs from vets. Shop for drugs at pharmacies, including online;"
  • "Shopping around (for a veterinarian) is a must."

Dr. Bruce Little
While CR interviewed officials with the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) for the story, the magazine says it contacted the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) communications office seven times in failed attempts to reach AVMA leadership. Dr. Bruce Little, executive director of AVMA, says he was aware CR called the office to obtain surveys, but he never talked to them.

AVMA, AAHA bear brunt Since the publication hit the newsstands in early June, AVMA says its home office as well as board members and officers have been flooded with calls and e-mails from incensed members.

In response, AVMA, as well as AAHA, are in damage control mode, preparing separate rebuttal letters for Consumer Reports and letters to the profession advising how to respond to the pet-owning public's inquiries.

The AVMA response is expected to focus on what the article failed to report. Little says the report could have been more beneficial to the pet and the owners if value, rather than dollars alone, was used as a measurement of good care.

Idea is born Author Jeff Blyskal, CR senior editor, says the idea for the article stemmed from another editor's discussion about fast-rising prices in veterinary care. The editor, a pet owner herself, encountered a veterinarian who wanted to charge her $800 for a spay.

As part of his report, CR posted an online query, generating 135 e-mails from pet owners who described their veterinary experiences.

Contrary to veterinary opinion, Blyskal says the article is anything but controversial.

"It may be controversial if you think consumers should be kept in the dark," Blyskal tells DVM Newsmagazine. "We're not telling consumers go out and pick the lowest price vet. We say shop around and make your own decision."

Association miffed Little tells DVM Newsmagazine the CR article is "another case of irresponsible, inferior journalism."

As an example he refers to the article's advice to consider the purchase of prescription drugs online. "It isn't good journalism for someone to recommend, as one of their four Internet outlets, to buy prescription drugs from an outlet whose license is on probation by the state licensing bureau."

Dr. Link Welborn
From the opening statement, Little says CR took pot shots at the profession, when suggesting that since 1997, veterinarians have been hiking prices at more than twice the rate of inflation.

"What about the price of human medicine? How does that rate (compare) to inflation?"

There's potential for there to be a fairly significant public reaction to this article, Little says. "You have a tendency to respond more when somebody calls you a dirty name than if it's about somebody else."

AAHA weighs in Dr. Link Welborn, president of AAHA, acknowledges while the author raised good points, overall, the article is "misleading."

"Traditionally, Consumer Reports has focused on educating consumers about the relative value of various products and services. However, in this case, they seemingly chose not to address value or recognize differences in veterinary care," he notes.

He says the author made an unfair assumption that companion animal medicine is a commodity and that clients should choose an animal hospital based predominately on price.

Blyskal counters. "Just the fact that we talk about and focus on price doesn't mean that's the only issue and that we're saying veterinary care is a commodity. A veterinary practice is both a business and a medical service.

"Our coverage of veterinary care signals to the profession that vets need to pay more attention to consumer concerns, consumer rights and demand for a fair deal."