Cyberbullying in Veterinary Medicine
From scathing reviews, to sensationalist articles, to digital threats; veterinarians and veterinary support staff around the world often fall victim to various forms of cyberbullying. As the reach of the digital world continues to expand, veterinary professionals need to be cognizant of the impact of cyberbullying on staff wellbeing and mental health.
In the pervasive age of technology and social media, coupled with a dash of sensationalism, it is no surprise that even professionals in a mostly “offline” profession find themselves to be victims of cyberbullying. In fact, a survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in 2014 found that about one in five veterinarians have been victims of or have worked with victims of cyberbullying in the workplace. It stands to reason that in recent years, with the advancement of technology and the digital interconnectedness of society, those numbers have likely increased. Within the last two months, without having sought them out, I happened across two articles highlighting outraged owners blaming their veterinarian for their animal’s death. In one case in particular it was rather obvious to a veterinary professional that this tragedy was not to be blamed on the veterinary practice, but a rather unfortunate and unpreventable condition. Regardless, the blame was placed on the professionals who did their best at the time. The sensationalist headline ignited a frenzy of social media shares and a wildfire of vitriol in the comments. The staff received death threats and the practice bad reviews from individuals who had never set foot in the facility. Stories like this one are, unfortunately, not uncommon.
Mental health is a pervasive issue in veterinary medicine. A 2020 Merck-funded study found that many veterinarians (52%) would not recommend their profession due to stress levels, suicide, and other negative factors. A 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that the veterinarian risk of suicide is more than double that of the average population. In 2014, a veterinarian by the name of Dr. Koshi committed suicide following a cyberbullying campaign. The Not One More Vet movement took social media by storm during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, as veterinarians faced higher stress levels, contention, and a heavier workload than ever before. Ironically enough, the same social media platforms that have been used to bring awareness to the mental health issues pervasive within veterinary medicine have also been used to tear veterinary professionals down. The 2020 Merck survey found that veterinarians who spent less time on social media suffered fewer negative online encounters.
But what incites cyberbullying, and what should be done in response? The 2014 study by the AVMA found that most incidences were initiated by former clients or staff, and typically arose over patient care or costs. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) encourages methods of protecting oneself and staff from potential bullies, such as having a clear position statement and ensuring polite, professional interactions. Additionally, both the CVMA and the AVMA advise monitoring social media and online review sites. The CVMA advises remaining polite in response to negative reviews and working to foster open communication with the reviewer, and to respond to fraudulent reviews very directly and politely. Explicitly they say, “Defamation must not be tolerated and abusive cases can be reported to authorities.” An article linked in the CVMA guide also discourages retaliatory action; do not stoop to the level of the bully. That does no one any favors.
Both the CVMA and the AVMA encourage veterinary professionals to be prepared. After all, it’s safe to assume that every facility will inevitably garner at least one bad review; no one is infallible or immune to criticism. What is important is to be prepared to respond and equipped to handle the stress that accompanies the criticism. It’s also important to know of available resources and when something is severe enough to be reported. One of the articles linked by the CVMA, titled, “How to Deal with Cyberbullying on Social Media” advises that clinics should have a response plan, in which who in the practice is responsible for responding, when to respond versus when to stay silent, and when to report/remove posts is explicitly determined. The AVMA seconds this advice, and offers specific resources to AVMA members, that can be found here: opens in a new windowwww.avma.org/resourcestools/ practice-management/ reputation. The resources focus on best practices, monitoring a practice’s online reputation, and dealing with criticism and cyberbullying. When cyberbullying and the mob mentality gets extreme, it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that you may not be able to handle things alone. In these cases, it is worth reporting to the local Veterinary Medical Association and, if serious threats are involved, to the local police.
In this day and age, cyberbullying is inevitable. What veterinary professionals can do is better equip themselves to deal with the challenges as they arise. This Stop Cyberbullying Day, reflect on what you can do to protect yourself and clinic staff. Explore the resources and be cognizant of your own mental wellbeing and need for self-care. Although all the advice linked by both the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association have been invaluable, I believe they both fail to mention something that is important to keep in mind. Some days, it’s okay to just disconnect and take care of yourself.
Cyberbullying in the Veterinary Profession. (n.d.). Retrieved May 09, 2021, from opens in a new window https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/cyberbulling-quebec-doc
Cyberbullying in veterinary medicine. (2015, September 2). Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windowhttps://www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-09-15/cyberbullying-veterinary-medicine
Fiala, J. (2020, September 3). Study: Veterinarians split on recommending the profession. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windownews.vin.com/default.aspx
How to deal with cyberbullying on social media. (2020, November 03). Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windowwww.lifelearn.com/2015/09/04/how-to-deal-with-cyberbullying-on-social-media/
Lau, E. (2018, December 27). CDC study validates concerns about Veterinary suicides. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windownews.vin.com/default.aspx
Mandlik, R., & Larkin, M. (2014, October 29). Fighting the cyberbully. Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windowwww.avma.org/javma-news/2014-11-15/fighting-cyberbully
Online reputation management and cyberbullying. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2021, from opens in a new windowwww.avma.org/resources-tools/practice-management/reputation