When the public sees the logo of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) displayed inside a veterinarian's lobby, they might assume the vet is in good standing with the non-profit agency.
The BBB, though, allows a select group of professions, including veterinarians, to be members, but will not process consumer complaints against them. If the public reviews a veterinarian's profile, for instance, on the BBB's website to find out if disputes have been filed, it may say "the Bureau processed no complaints about this company in the last 36 months, our standard reporting period," and "Based on BBB files, this company has a satisfactory record with the Bureau, which means the company has been in business for at least 12 months, and properly addressed matters referred by the Bureau."
Yet that may not be true.
Dick Eppstein, president of the northwest Ohio Better Business Bureau, said the agency doesn't process disputes against veterinarians, doctors and lawyers because "we're not experts in things like that."
Although they can be members of the BBB, consumer complaints against these professions should be filed with professional review boards, not the BBB, he said.
"They know a lot more about most of these specialties than we do," he said.
It would be unfair, he added, to exclude them from joining the BBB just because consumers can't complain about them.
"They can join the Better Business Bureau, because, as near as we can tell, they are ethical and well-established," said Eppstein.
"We don't get a lot of complaints on them - we get a very small number. One thing you learn is that there are two sides to every story. You know only what each side tells you. They'll give us their position, what they recall happening, as opposed to the customer's, and the stories differ so dramatically, that you know someone in the industry or profession is going to have to sit down and look over the records and the treatment, in the case of a vet or physician. It's a very technical thing sometimes," he said.
"If we started receiving a pattern of complaints on a doctor or veterinarian, we would keep an eye on them. Even though we couldn't rule on anything, we would contact the state and say we're very concerned about these five complaints we just got in a two month period," said Eppstein.
Why allow some professions to join the BBB if the agency does not consider customer disputes against them?
"Many times, professionals who are established join the BBB voluntarily because they want to support what we're doing," said Eppstein.
"They want the community protected against fraud, and they support us to do that. In other words, they're not just displaying the BBB logo to say, `You can trust me, I don't get complaints.' But it says, `I'm a doctor or veterinarian who believes in the purposes and principles of the BBB,"' said Eppstein.
He has no concerns the public may feel misled when viewing these professionals' profiles on the BBB website that says they've had no complaints in the last 36 months, even though there may have been.
He acknowledged the public has a "certain level of comfort" when seeing the BBB logo displayed in members’ offices, knowing they can check their profiles before doing business with them. Yet he remains staunch in his refusal to process public complaints against veterinarians, which may give consumers a false sense of security when viewing their profiles on the BBB website.
"I don't know any way around that. To say to a physician or veterinarian they can't join the BBB and put our logo up in their lobby, or that we're going to rule on complaints about how they stitched an abdomen, neither of that works for us,” said Eppstein, whose son is a surgeon.
Conflict of interest
Eppstein is doing a disservice to the public by allowing such a policy, according to Dr. Dennis Garrett, a professor of marketing at Marquette University. Garrett called it "inconsistent and contradictory" for the BBB to allow a company to be a member of the BBB, but "not hold it accountable to the same standards as other member organizations."
"This case does highlight the challenges of the BBB system in that each of the 120 local BBB offices in the U.S. has considerable latitude in establishing its own policies and procedures," said Garrett, who also serves on the board of directors for the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau.
Other BBB offices, he said, may choose to consider disputes against medical professionals and attorneys. He believes complaints should be noted in their BBB files.
"Over the years, this issue has been the main criticism leveled against the BBB by its critics," said Garrett. "Namely, because the BBB is almost totally reliant on member dues for its financial survival, critics argue that the BBB is reluctant to `come down hard' on member companies when complaints are lodged against them."
Charging your veterinary bill to your credit card? Better think again. Credit card companies will not consider chargeback disputes, even if you can prove negligence, malpractice, or services your pet never received. You’re stuck with the bill.
MasterCard, for instance, will not issue chargeback "for any sort of medical diagnosis or negligence," according to a local MasterCard chargeback specialist. MasterCard follows the rules of dispute set forth by MasterCard International.
"The rules themselves are in books that are many volumes thick," said the specialist.
MasterCard has a customer advocate line at 1-800-MC-Assist.
The Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), which represents veterinary interests, has a peer review process pet owners can participate in if they have a complaint against a veterinarian.
Participation is limited to pet owners who have not yet filed a lawsuit, nor a complaint with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Licensing Board, which disciplines veterinarians and renews or revokes their licenses.
Jack Advent, executive director of the OVMA, said veterinarians and pet owners are interviewed during the process.
"The OVMA Peer Review Committee is designed to assist both parties in mediating non-medical disputes between a veterinarian and client," he said. "We receive, on average, 10-12 requests per year, and where both client and veterinarian are receptive to understanding the other's position, most have a successful outcome. From the initial request, it typically takes 60 to 90 days to come to a resolution."
Findings are non-binding.
A complaint form can be downloaded off the Internet. For more information, contact the OVMA at 1-800-662-OVMA, or 614-486-7253.
The Ohio Veterinary Medical Licensing Board is the regulatory agency for the practice of veterinary medicine. It can discipline veterinarians and veterinary technicians for violating rules governing the medical care of pets.
Heather Hissom, executive secretary of the board, said there are no time constraints for pet owners to file complaints, though veterinarians are required to keep medical records for only three years.
The board meets regularly to consider complaints. The minutes of previous meetings, which lists the receipt of complaints stretching back to 2002, is on the board's website at www.ovmlb.ohio.gov. There is also a search engine that discloses the names of veterinarians who have been disciplined by the board.
For more information, contact the board office at 614-644-5281, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Features Editor Tammy Walro contributed to this report