Veterinarians challenged leaders of PetMed Express Inc. to make the company's advertising and other practices less antagonistic to the veterinary profession.
The confrontation occurred Jan. 15 during a well-attended panel discussion at the North American Veterinary Conference. The panelists were two leaders of PetMed Express, an Internet pharmacy doing business as 1-800-PetMeds, and three critics from the veterinary community.
Late last year, NAVC organizers announced in an email to attendees that PetMed Express would be a conference exhibitor and sponsor in 2012 for the first time. Numerous veterinarians expressed concerns in response, wrote Dr. Colin F. Burrows, NAVC executive director, in a Dec. 7 message on the conference website.
"Obviously the name of this company and its past practices hit a nerve with several members of the profession after they received our email blast," Dr. Burrows wrote.
In the past, state pharmacy boards disciplined PetMed Express on charges of distributing prescription drugs outside a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. The company accepted penalties but did not admit guilt.
PetMed Express voluntarily withdrew as an NAVC exhibitor and sponsor. Dr. Burrows wrote that conference organizers already had planned to hold a panel discussion to give the company a chance to meet with critics.
Dr. Douglas R. Mader, an NAVC past president, moderated the panel. He noted that conference organizers have allowed other Internet pharmacies to be exhibitors, but the possibility of PetMed Express becoming an NAVC exhibitor prompted many attendees to sign a petition in opposition.
Panelist Bonnie Levengood, PetMed Express director of marketing, made introductory remarks on behalf of herself and panelist Gary Koesten, PetMed Express director of pharmacy services.
"One thing that many of you may not know is that there was new management that came into 1-800-PetMeds and essentially took over the company and really put in extremely strict policies," Levengood said. "We made sure we were in 100 percent compliance with everything."
Recently, the company earned accreditation from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
PetMed Express wants to improve its relationship with veterinarians, Levengood said.
"We've been encouraging vet visits, and we're also considering ramping that up under the recommendation of Dr. Mader," Levengood said.
Panelist James F. Wilson, a veterinarian and lawyer, said the laws covering veterinary products are amazingly complex. So, the Internet pet pharmacies made mistakes when they entered the market. He said the companies' marketing techniques are what stick in the craw of a lot of veterinarians.
"Some of the marketing techniques out there have tended to drive clients away from their veterinarians when the message is 'Why go to your veterinarian, when you can buy it for less here?'" Dr. Wilson said. "If you got ripped off buying your pet meds from your local veterinarian, then maybe you're going to be getting ripped off by your veterinarian for the veterinary professional services."
Panelist Ernie Ward, a practitioner and media personality, said some veterinarians have overcharged for veterinary products. Dr. Ward strongly criticized PetMed Express, however, for the negativity of its advertising.
Panelist Doralee Donaldson, a practitioner, had initiated the petition opposing PetMed Express becoming an NAVC exhibitor.
"I want it to be clear that my animosity toward this company is not in any way related to their simply being a competitor," Dr. Donaldson said. "PetMeds has spent over 15 years deliberately, aggressively, and blatantly attempting to undermine the veterinary profession."
As one example, she read part of a letter from PetMed Express to the client of one of her colleagues. The company had contacted the colleague on behalf of the client to request a prescription for a heartworm preventive, but the veterinarian denied authorization because the patient needed a heartworm test. The letter to the client asserted that some veterinarians require a heartworm test only when the client does not buy heartworm preventive from the veterinarian.
Levengood responded to the criticisms. She said PetMed Express will always emphasize savings, but the company did not intend for its advertising to create discord with veterinarians. Recently, she said, the company has been removing negative references from direct communications with customers.
Questions and answers
The question-and-answer period of the discussion started with an inquiry about where PetMed Express acquires drugs. Levengood said the company's contracts with suppliers are confidential.
PetMed Express is among the companies that sell nonprescription flea and tick products that many manufacturers theoretically make available only through veterinarians. Dr. Ward said he would like to ask the manufacturers how nonveterinarians are obtaining the products.
The discussion turned to how PetMed Express could create advertising that is more positive toward the veterinary profession.
"We may consider putting together a 15-second commercial that just tells people to 'Go to your vet,'" Levengood said.
Dr. Wilson suggested that PetMed Express should establish a veterinary advisory board to offer input on decisions and review advertising. Dr. Mader suggested forming a focus group to start.
The audience called on the company to take accountability for past practices.
"Some mistakes were made," Levengood said. "And we're going to own up to the fact that there were mistakes that were made."
Koesten said, "Please stop holding us accountable for the things that went on 11, 12, 13 years ago that under no circumstances exist today."
Answering another question, Koesten defended PetMed Express' practice of contacting customers after veterinarians deny authorization of prescriptions. Whenever a customer requests a prescription via the company, he said, the company contacts the customer's veterinarian to authorize the prescription. If the veterinarian denies authorization, the company relays the reason for the denial to the customer.
Among concluding remarks by the panelists, Levengood re-emphasized that PetMed Express wants to improve its relationship with veterinarians.
"We're open to hearing what you have to say," she said.
Dr. Mader said after the conference that PetMed Express was forming a veterinary focus group to assist with the company's new advertising campaign.