Dancing around online veterinary diagnosis: Difficulties in the digital age

Dancing around online veterinary diagnosis: Difficulties in the digital age

It doesn’t matter how close you were in high school. It’s better not to say anything remotely definitive when you get a “what is this?” Facebook message about a friend’s pet.
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Mar 07, 2017

How many times have you received a message on social media asking for pet advice? How many “what does this look like?” pictures have you received? In the digital age where everyone’s connected, you’re bound to be asked for veterinary advice from a “friend” you haven’t seen since high school. This leaves veterinary technicians in a pickle. Obviously you want to help your friend and their pet, but dancing around online diagnosis can be tricky.

As a veterinary technician, our scope of practice varies from state to state, but the big four don’ts remain sovereign.
1. No diagnosing

2. No prognosing

3. No prescribing

4. No performing surgery.

How to say “ask your vet” nicely

So what do you do when you get a picture of a lump on your third cousin’s dog? Using language that is suggestive yet not definitive is key. You want to avoid “this is” or “this is not” statements. Even saying something like, “we see this all the time at my practice,” could be inferred as making a diagnosis. Personally, I try to avoid even supposing a potential diagnosis in these situations. Despite that fact that I know that brown-stained, hairless spot on your dog’s forelimb is likely a lick granuloma, I tend to go for the, “I’m not sure what it could be. You should see your veterinarian,” deferral.

Overall, it’s best to recommend the patient receive professional care at their regular veterinarian—or an emergency veterinarian if the owner feels it’s necessary. No matter how close you were with Jane in high school, don’t think she won’t hesitate to screenshot and the conversation where you told her she could “probably wait to see her regular veterinarian next week” and that “it looks like Fluffy just has an ear infection.” Because if Fluffy develops an ear hematoma, which needs to be repaired under anesthesia, and dies due to anesthetic complications, good old Jane might place the blame on your online diagnosis.

A bow to best practices

Consider the phrasing you would use in an exam room with a client. Likely you wouldn’t tell a client a potential diagnosis. You’d gather information, nod your head and smile, and then report back to your veterinarian. It may seem hard to be short and sweet with your Facebook friends, but it’s necessary.

No matter how thankful Jane is, potentially tarnishing your professional accolades won’t be worth it in the end. The consequences may vary from state to state, but they can be as mild as having to complete additional continuing education to fines or even to losing your veterinarytechnician credentials. So when you’re dancing around making an online diagnosis, remember not to get your feet crossed.

Abigail Fishaw, LVT, lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband, daughters and pets. She’s worked in the veterinary field for 11 years and has been a licensed veterinary technician since 2009. Abby has a special affinity for black and white cats and Cavalier King Charles spaniels.