The following editorial was published in the Des Moines Register on Oct. 17:
Veterinarians are under incredible stress. Many feel unappreciated, are targeted online and have huge student loan debt. Too many have committed suicide.
These were among the troubling points made in emails from veterinarians to The Des Moines Register editorial board following a recent editorial about the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Their concerns should be taken seriously by all of us, including patients, veterinary schools and especially the state board overseeing these professionals. Veterinarians are vital not only to pet owners, but also to a state with a large agricultural industry. We need them.
The Register editorial focused on the lack of transparency and information for consumers provided by the state-sanctioned board that licenses and oversees about 3,500 veterinarians and veterinary technicians in Iowa. It does not make available online the licensing status or disciplinary actions taken against vets. Other state job licensing boards do, which allows consumers to know about problems.
People with sick dogs and cats, who are distressed and facing sometimes huge expenses, should be able to quickly find out the same basic licensing information about veterinarians they can know about surgeons, cosmetologists, athletic trainers, dentists and numerous other professionals licensed by state boards.
Does this person working in a vet clinic have an active license? Has he been sanctioned? How long has she been practicing? Where did he go to school? What is she certified in? Changes to a state website could make all that information easily available to consumers, which is particularly important when pet owners are visiting an emergency vet with staff they don’t know.
Iowans responded to the editorial with stories of gratitude for doctors who saved their pets, but also frustration with huge costs incurred from testing and treatment. They raised concerns about the changing model of care, where corporate entities are replacing what were once private practices.
Yet the vast majority of responses came from veterinarians. They emailed from all over the country.
“As a veterinarian I have been blamed for delivering dead puppies . I have been blamed for not being able to save an unspayed dog too far gone because of an infected uterus. We are already the target of online mobbing and harassment,” wrote one.
Another asked why a pet owner would question a veterinarian’s licensing status. “That only happens when it’s about money, distrust and bad outcomes.”
A veterinarian from Marshalltown pointed to the practice of corporate ownership of clinics “which is removing the ability of veterinarians to purchase clinics to run privately as well as (creating) unfair situations for families involved in veterinary practices.”
“Articles like yours are part of why veterinarians have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession,” wrote another reader,
Earlier this year the Washington Post reported about a study finding that veterinarians, with mounting student loan debt and targeted by social media attacks from angry pet owners, are committing suicide at rates higher than the general population. Veterinarians often kill themselves with drugs meant for their patients, according to the article.
One veterinarian who spoke with an editorial writer expressed the emotional difficulty of euthanizing a dog in one room minutes before congratulating the new owner of a kitten in another. And vets, like workers in many other professions, worry about retaliation online from disgruntled customers on websites like Yelp.
That makes it all the more important for a state licensing board to provide legitimate information on its website for consumers. If people have nowhere to turn for information, they look to message boards and websites that gather anonymous, unsubstantiated complaints.
The struggles of veterinarians also make board transparency more important. Is the board doing anything to alleviate the squeeze on vets or is it making things worse?
Licensing boards have incredible power over the workers they regulate. Members are not public employees and are not accountable to the public. They can revoke licenses, issue sanctions, impose fines and strip people of their livelihood. They can spearhead changes in administrative rules to make it more difficult for future workers to enter a profession.
Meanwhile, complaints logged about the vet board with the Iowa Office of the Ombudsman are not public.
If anyone should be arguing for more openness in a state board, it is the workers whose livelihoods depend on the opinions and actions of a few board members appointed by the governor.