No board sanction without representation

No board sanction without representation

An appearance before the state veterinary board brings up a larger issue: If a board’s composition doesn’t reflect the professionals it oversees, can it fairly pass judgment?
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Mar 05, 2018

Imagine that this is your state veterinary board. Now, imagine that you're a cat. Good luck. (Shutterstock.com)Veterinarian Leah Hicks and her wife, Jan Thompson, a fellow DVM, owned a suburban practice with dedicated clients and a strong commitment to local charitable pet organizations.

Drs. Hicks and Thompson knew they stood out to a degree in their community, but their personal lives rarely created any issues with their clients—until Leland Harkness and his dog Putty came through the door.

Putty, an intact male, was starting to have some defecation issues due to an enlarged prostate. Dr. Hicks explained the situation to the owner and recommended neutering the dog to shrink the prostate and resolve the clinical signs.

Mr. Harkness recoiled at the suggestion. He felt that neutering Putty would alter the dog’s natural, God-given state. Dr. Hicks acknowledged Mr. Harkness’ concern but reiterated that in this case, the surgery could alleviate the dog’s discomfort and serve its future well-being. Mr. Harkness retorted that based on Dr. Hicks’ lifestyle choices, he didn’t think the veterinarian had much respect for his dog’s God-given state.

Dr. Hicks asked Mr. Harkness what he meant by the remark.

“My words speak for themselves,” he smugly replied.

The wounded veterinarian lost her temper and responded, “Well, my words speak for themselves too, so get the hell out of my clinic.”

“If you’re not going to treat my dog, you haven’t heard the end of this!” Mr. Harkness yelled before slamming the door behind him.

Although Dr. Hicks regretted allowing a narrow-minded client get the best of her, she eventually concluded that she wouldn’t have done anything differently. His comment had attacked the core of who she was.

“Anyone who comes into my clinic and insults me and my personal life will be shown the door,” she thought.

Day of reckoning

Mr. Harkness was true to his word. Four weeks later, a certified letter arrived addressed to Dr. Hicks. The state board of veterinary examiners was requesting her appearance before the board to respond to a complaint of professional misconduct.

When the appointed day arrived, Dr. Hicks made her appearance before the board, accompanied by her insurance carrier’s designated attorney. The facts of the case were reviewed and the board discussion was leaning toward criticizing her for an “overreaction” when Dr. Hicks stepped in and asked to make a statement.

“With all due respect,” she began, “the board I am sitting before is composed of six white male veterinarians and two members of the public. There has only been one woman on this board in the last 25 years, and no minority members or members of the LGBT community have ever served on it. I honestly don’t see how this board can truly appreciate the impact of Mr. Harkness’ statement against me at my workplace. My mildly profane response was not inappropriate in the face of his aggressive, bigoted statement.”

The state board respectfully listened to Dr. Hicks’ admonition. She was correct in that the board reflected neither diversity nor the demographics of the state’s licensed veterinarians, 77 percent of whom were women.

The board determined that Dr. Hicks’ actions and language toward the client were ill-advised but could not be labeled as unprofessional conduct. They also noted that the board composition was determined by gubernatorial appointment, not the veterinary community. They advised her to redirect her demographic concerns to the governor’s office.

Rosenberg’s response

Who among us has not lost their composure during a stressful situation?

Dr. Hicks was deeply offended and lashed out. In a perfect world, she would have politely asked the client to leave her office. However, this is not a perfect world. The board was correct, and so was Dr. Hicks.

Many state boards are not representative in their composition of the veterinary professionals they oversee. It’s important that we as a veterinary community bring this to the attention of our legislators. Our political representatives need assistance in selecting and appointing diverse memberships for all state boards.

 

Marc Rosenberg, VMD, is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. In his private time, he enjoys playing basketball and swing dancing with his wife. Although many of his scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.