Lawsuit Sparks Debate Among Vets Over Nation's Largest Veterinary Chain

 |  Jul 16th 2010  |   1 Contribution


Banfield, the Pet Hospital (formerly known as VetSmart--most of the chain's offices are located in PetSmart stores) is the largest chain of veterinary hospitals in the United States.

Among most veterinarians I know, Banfield has a bad reputation. Why is there such animosity?

First, Banfield is a big business. Most veterinary clinics are small businesses. Vets fear that Banfield, with its economies of scale, will drive smaller practices out of business.

Many vets also feel that Banfield is bad for the profession. In the late 1990s the chain repeatedly sponsored measures (which thankfully failed) in California that would have made it easier for graduates of veterinary schools in developing countries to become licensed in the state. The word on the streets was that Banfield wanted to bring in third-rate cheap labor for their clinics. To this day the chain sponsors "temporary licensing curricula" in California.

(Screen capture is from an e-mail I received this week.) Many people think the purpose of this is to increase the number of vets available to the chain. Veterinarians fear that easing the requirements for licensing will allow a larger number of incompetent vets to practice in the state. This would adversely impact the profession's integrity.

Rumors circulate that Banfield exploits foreign graduates that it brings to this country on special visas. Many former employees deplore the working conditions at the chain.

A number of veterinarians fret that the medicine practiced at Banfield is low quality and profit driven. They claim that Banfield promotes over-vaccination of pets. (Several years ago Banfield published a few quasi-scientific studies that supported annual vaccinations rather than the triennial vaccinations that are recommended by most respected authorities.) Banfield uses an infamous proprietary computer system that supposedly guides veterinarians through recommended tests and treatments based on symptoms and physical exam findings. Many non-Banfield vets worry that this leads to low quality cookie-cutter medicine, and to over-treatment of many conditions.

Banfield's medical records appear to put avoidance of lawsuits first and the patient's needs last. I have seen medical records that contained 50 or more pages of material that is irrelevant to a veterinarian treating the pet but that would prove very useful to a lawyer defending the chain against a malpractice lawsuit. Finding truly important information in these records is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Banfield has a reputation for strong-arming suppliers and for using products that nobody else uses if they can get a good deal on them. For a while the chain used microchips that could not be read by anyone else's scanners. This led to concerns that owned pets would be euthanized by shelters after being mistaken for strays. The company currently promotes a flea preventative that in my opinion has a bad safety profile and is no better than the horrible products made by Hartz, Sargeant's and BioSpot.

Banfield's supporters dispute the allegations of employee exploitation and cookie-cutter medicine. And I readily applaud the chain's decision one year ago to stop docking tails and cropping ears. Banfield's anesthetic protocols appear to be good ones that are safer than those practiced by many old-school independent vets.

This week news of a lawsuit against the chain has started a great deal of chatter in the veterinary community. It also has added a new allegation to the list above: bill padding. A veterinarian in Oregon is suing Banfield. He claims he was fired for complaining that the chain was putting profits above the needs of pets. The chain denies the allegations.

The veterinarian claims that the Banfield hospital where he worked purchased an ultrasound machine and then began pressuring vets to use the machine (and charge clients for its use) in order to pay it off.

To be fair, I should remind readers that anything said by a potentially disgruntled former employee must be taken with a grain of salt. And I also should point out that many of the bad things that are said about Banfield also could be said about many other veterinary hospitals. I think that a lot of the flack that is drawn by the chain is related to its enormous size.

The lawsuit has made headlines in veterinary news journals and has sparked a great deal of debate about the chain among veterinarians and veterinary technicians. If you want to read what veterinarians are saying about the matter, I recommend that you check out Jen Schori's blog on Clinician's Brief. The comments section is fascinating.

Meanwhile, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts and feelings about Banfield and the lawsuit.

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