Ethical questions: always interesting, sometimes sticky, often ignored.

I was reminded recently of a complicated issue of professional ethics that came up in my world a few years ago.

Here’s the scenario: A client, we’ll call her Lorna, has moved her horse to a newly established boarding facility that offers pasture board for horses in small groups. Her horse has been there long enough that Lorna has had occasion to use the barn’s chosen veterinarian for a routine call – shots and such. So, she has now established a professional relationship as a client of this vet.

A few months into the boarding business’ presence on this property (which is new to this business, but has housed horses before), Barn Manager (BM) decides she’d like to know how the horses are doing nutritionally on the pastures. She chooses one horse from each pasture and arranges for veterinarian to draw blood to check a variety of things including Vitamin E and selenium levels. BM does not choose any horses that belong to the facility owner or to BM herself, only client horses.

BM does not inform boarders that these tests are done on their horses until after the fact. Lorna’s horse is one of those horses tested.

After the lab results for the tests on the boarders’ horses come back, veterinarian calls BM to give her the results and, later, provides a copy of the labwork to BM on each of the tested horses.

Veterinarian does not contact owners of the tested horses to inform them of the lab results, nor does she provide written results to the horse owners. Veterinarian does send a bill for the lab test to each of the owners of the tested horses (contact info. provided by BM).

Lorna is not amused. She has it out with BM for obvious huge, large and very bad breach of barn manager/client ethics. (BM is unrepentant. She wanted the info. and neither she nor facility owner wanted to pay for it. Clients should be glad BM is taking such good care of their horses and should shut up and pay vet bill.) Lorna makes plans to move her horse to another boarding facility.

Lorna comes to me and asks what should she do about the vet bill? I say:

1. You did not authorize the test; you shouldn’t pay for it.

2. Vet committed huge ethical breach by reporting information about your horse to a third party without your explicit direction/permission. Vet should be reported to State Vet Board for ethics violation.

I don’t know whether Lorna paid the bill or whether she reported the violation. What would you have done?

9 thoughts on “Ethical questions: always interesting, sometimes sticky, often ignored.

  1. I would have hit the roof. I’m angry at just reading that something like this would happen.

    As the owner of a mare with insulin resistance, any change or variation in her care can become a major issue. If the BM opted to have any vet work done on my horse without me present (and when it wasn’t an emergency), I’d refuse to pay the bill and report the vet to the vet board. I’d contact my lawyer with a copy of the boarding agreement in hand to find out what legal recourse was available.

    And then I’d start writing articles with as much documentation and proof as I could muster. I’d interview the other boarders who had the same situation. Every horse web site and tack shop I could find would be informed.

    • Sorry if my comment came across as little strong, but I’d be furious. I can not imagine what Lorna must be going through and how her trust has been violated.

      I hope she is able to find some recourse and be able to deal with this situation.

      • No apologies needed here. I agreed with everything you said … and I’ll bet quite a few other folks do, too. I got all riled up just remembering the incident to write about … and it happened several years ago.

        Thanks for participating!

  2. I would be furious, I would refuse to pay the bill and let the vet know that if he/she wants to be paid to talk to the person who ordered the tests; I would move my horse immediately or at least have a true heart to heart with the barn manager about ethics. What a bunch of #(*%# — I would be MAD!

  3. As a barn manager myself, I can only say that the BM at that barn should be fired. As a barn manager, clients are trusting you with the care of their horses and this was a direct violation of that trust. Veterinary protocols are established between the owners vet, the owner and/or the trainer and barn manger for those particular horses and NO ONE should violate those protocols for any reason other than a medical emergency which includes a life threatening injury or colic. It does not include drawing blood to check nutritional values on horses that do not belong to you. The veterinarian who was doing this should be reported to the AVMA for an ethics violation. Any good veterinarian should know better – mine does!!!!

  4. I definitely agree, the veterinarian in question needs to take the bill issue up wit the BM who ordered the test, and the owners of said horses need to take the issue of unauthorized veterinary care up with the BM. What if, in the process of drawing the blood, one of the horses had been injured? I have seen a few horses that object strongly to shots/vaccines/blood draws, who would have been liable then?

    The question is, is the BM “malicious” (meaning, ordered the tests specifically only on clients horses with the intent of the clients paying the bill) or just stupid (didn’t understand the typical relationship that occurs between owner-veterinarian-barn manager or failed to see the issue here)?

    Also, why didn’t the barn manager just take a sample of the pasture itself and send it to a lab for analysis? Probably more accurate because I’ll bet some of those horses were receiving extra supplements anyway, and also probably cheaper!

    • Great points, Ashley. I hadn’t specifically thought about the question of liability should one of the horses be injured during the blood draw – what a nightmare scenario that could turn into. And your point about testing the pasture instead of relying on variable of supplemented vs. non-supplemented horses is interesting, too. Some of the horses in each pasture did get supplements, while others did not.

      BM in this instance was not a newbie and very well understood the appropriate professional relationships here.

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