November 10, 2017

Is Dr. Google Coming Between You and Your Clients?

Some veterinarians are giving a special type of prescription to clients who use the internet to find pet health information.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
The internet is an ever-popular information source that has experienced marked increases in usage. In the United Kingdom, for example, daily or near-daily internet usage jumped from 35% of the population in 2006 to 82% in 2016.

People often use the internet to access both human and veterinary health information. Pet owners, in particular, will seek advice from the internet and their veterinarian. However, with the vast expanse of online pet health information, pet owners are at risk for getting inaccurate or incomplete information from unreliable sources. To address this risk, some veterinarians have begun using “information prescriptions” to guide pet owners to websites that offer credible and accurate pet health information.

Unlike in human medicine, little is currently known about the internet’s influence in veterinary practice interactions between veterinarians and clients. A study recently published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science sought to explore the impact of client internet usage on the veterinarian-client relationship (VCR).

Using an online survey of 100 UK veterinarians, the study’s researchers analyzed veterinarians’ perceptions of client internet usage. The survey questions covered 4 areas:
  • Demographics
  • Perceptions of client internet usage and client understanding of accessed information
  • Veterinarians’ use of information prescriptions
  • Perceived impact of client internet use on the VCR

Most survey respondents were female, lived in England, and practiced exclusively small animal medicine.

Internet Usage and Understanding
About 60% of surveyed veterinarians believed that most of their clients accessed the internet for pet health information. Importantly, nearly 75% of the veterinarians perceived that only up to 40% of their clients actually understood what they read. This lack of understanding, the researchers noted, could be due to several factors, including clients’ online search strategies.

Information Prescriptions
Ninety-four veterinarians “prescribed” websites to clients, with widely varying frequency and approaches. Overall, about 30% of these veterinarians provided information prescriptions less than once a month, while 15% did so daily. About 20% wrote down website information and 2% went beyond this to pull up the prescribed website during the appointment.

Impact on the VCR
Approximately 55% of respondents perceived a negative impact of client internet usage on the VCR, with one writing that “online misinformation is a major cause of stress and frustration to myself and colleagues.” Similar percentages believed that internet use had a negative (40%) or positive (37%) impact on pet health. On the positive side, one respondent wrote, “I find that Dr. Google is sometimes a very useful tool in supporting my advice and helps the client understand sometimes complex problems at their leisure.”

This study’s findings were similar to those in a study of US veterinarian perceptions on client internet usage. However, because of small sample sizes and potential differences in veterinary practice between the United Kingdom and United States, such similarities should be viewed with caution, the researchers noted.

Overall, the researchers concluded that this small sample of UK veterinarians had mixed opinions on client internet usage and this usage’s impact on the VCR. For future studies on client Internet usage, the researchers recommended surveying clients directly and performing larger-scale studies of veterinarians.

 
Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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