How Internet Surfing Affects Our Veterinary Visits
It is estimated that 91% of households in the E.U. have internet access. Because of this, most people now have unlimited access to information about companion animal health — and it’s just a click away.
Informing themselves about their animal’s condition may help guardians communicate with veterinarians and accept the diagnoses they’re given. However, the authors of this paper point out that internet sites may contain incorrect information, or correct information that can be misinterpreted by non-professionals. Surfing the internet can also encourage guardians to try home treatment or delay a visit to the vet, which may put animals at risk.
In this study, the authors surveyed companion animal veterinarians in the U.K., Denmark, and Austria to find out about their attitudes toward their clients’ use of the internet. They chose these three countries because research suggests they have different levels of internet use (Austria has lower rates of internet use than Denmark and the U.K.).
641 veterinarians responded to the survey. Around half of the respondents estimated that between 40–79% of their clients use the internet to find medical information. According to other studies cited in the article, the real proportion of clients who use the internet to research animal medical information may actually be much higher than that.
Another interesting finding was the fact that 70–78% of veterinarians, regardless of country, said their clients sometimes question their advice based on something they read on the internet. Significantly more Austrian veterinarians indicated that they had “never” been challenged by clients based on internet information. The authors found that veterinarians who frequently experienced this type of confrontation were more likely to have negative attitudes about their clients using the internet.
Between 55-68% of veterinarians across the three countries reported that clients’ use of internet resources helps them accept the diagnoses and care plans they’re given. At the same time, 63-81% agreed that internet use “results in greater expectations of advanced diagnostics and treatments.” This can be problematic if clients’ expectations don’t match the veterinarians’ recommendations. For example, U.K. veterinarians who often experienced clients questioning their medical advice were more likely to agree that the internet leads to increased client expectations.
Informed caretakers can also form strong opinions and expect veterinarians to justify themselves. The authors observed that younger veterinarians tended to view this negatively. They give two possible reasons for this: clients may behave differently around younger or less experienced professionals (thus challenging them more often), and younger veterinarians could feel less secure when confronting a client with strong opinions.
Finally, the study also found gender differences in the data. Women tended to agree more than men that the use of the internet helped facilitate discussions around diagnoses and treatments. Based on similar research with doctors of humans, the authors hypothesize that women veterinarians could be seen as more approachable, so guardians could be more likely to raise information they’ve read from the internet.
Advocates for companion animals can make use of this study by encouraging guardians to have more open discussions with their veterinarians and not be shy of asking for clarification about what they read online. At the same time, advocates should also encourage veterinarians to provide reliable internet resources and to make clients feel welcome to ask questions, regardless of the information source. The internet isn’t going away, so helping guardians embrace it in responsible ways can lead to more trusting relationships and, most importantly, result in better health outcomes for companion animals.