It just happened again. The little head-shaped silhouette in the top left corner of my Facebook page lit up, and a wonderful pet owner I recently helped reached out to be my online friend.

I have seen Mrs. Morgan a half dozen times in the last six months, and she is delightful. She has two English Springer Spaniels and a rabbit named Professor Snacks. (That name alone earns her huge points with me.) She seems like one of the sweetest people anyone could meet, and I’d love to be connected to her and her pets.

But just before I click the button to accept her as a Facebook connection, a surge of worry shoots through me. I think of how she might respond to some of the things I post on Facebook to friends and family. Will she be offended by reports of my parenting blunders, profanities in any of the articles I share or flippant comments about hard days at work? What will she think when she realizes that being a veterinarian is only a part (albeit a significant part) of who I am as a person? 

What if there are things about her I don’t want to know? What if she tries to change my religion, sell me cosmetics or criticize me for activities that take me away from the clinic? What if she expects me to be on call for pet questions, comments and emergency care 24/7?

Will she understand if I decline to be her Facebook friend, or will she be insulted? Will it be worse if I accept her invitation now and then remove her later if it feels like personal boundaries are being blurred? Will her pets suffer somehow if I don’t make myself available this way?

I love interacting with people who bring me their pets. I honk my horn and wave when I see them on the street, sit with them at PTA meetings and visit their table if I see them in restaurants. Still, letting them into my semiprivate life via Facebook (and being allowed into theirs) is a bit intimidating.

Facebook and Medicine

Social media is changing the way we communicate. Veterinarians who want to provide the best patient care possible are well aware that pet owners spend a lot of time online. They also know that helping pet owners find quality information to address pet problems should be a priority. Opportunities to help pets and support pet owners are plentiful in social media. But so are pitfalls.

Earlier this month, the American College of Physicians (ACP) released its position statement on how human doctors and patients should interact online. Many of the statements ring true for those of us practicing veterinary medicine as well.

Essentially, the ACP said that patients are extending invitations to doctors to connect online with increasing frequency, but very few doctors are accepting. The ACP encouraged this trend — not accepting — for a few reasons, including:

  • Doctors should always communicate to patients with the same level of professionalism, whether they are in person, on the phone, using email or posting on Facebook. Stories of your veterinarian out on the town, debating politics or pulling practical jokes almost certainly fall short of standard examination-room decorum.
  • Both patients and doctors have a right to “professional distance and privacy.” We’ve all done it — “friended” someone we only barely know through a mutual acquaintance then been inundated with photos of his or her kids and home life, learning far more about the person than we may have intended to. Everyone has different expectations of privacy, and it’s easy to get — or give — more information than you bargained for, making the professional relationship awkward.
  • Common, if frowned-upon, online behaviors like “venting” about job frustrations can damage professionalism and seem disrespectful. Everyone has bad days. Unfortunately, one bad day and a poor choice of what to share with the world on Facebook can alter a veterinarian’s (or pet owner’s) reputation forever. For anyone with a quick temper or habit of sticking his foot in his mouth, accepting Facebook friends should be done with caution.

Veterinary Life Online

It is possible: I have veterinary colleagues who are Facebook friends with many of their clients. Most of them have had a wonderful experience where both parties are respectful of personal boundaries and the doctor is able to be there when needed. These doctors have built stronger relationships with pet owners, and the pets have benefitted from the connection.

But it’s also problematic: I also know veterinarians who feel that being able to leave medicine behind when they go home is their saving grace — and the reason they are able to recharge and arrive fresh at work every day. (I personally fall into this category.) I have talked to veterinarians who have felt abused and taken advantage of by people who were not respectful of their personal time away from the veterinary clinic. I even have a colleague who once declined a pet owner’s request to be friends on Facebook and lost her as a client because of it.

Some veterinarians have taken a different approach to forming online connections by creating a public page. This is a Facebook page others can “like” (rather than an individual others can “friend”). It offers a way for individual veterinarians or entire clinics to share content with anyone who is interested, while still staying one step removed from the person-to-person connection. I have a Facebook page like this, and I enjoy sharing humor, articles and other general interest content there with folks from all over the world. I also have a disclaimer on the page that reminds those who visit it that nothing on that page is intended to be used as medical advice, nor am I open to discussing specific medical questions about individual pets on the page. It’s just for sharing information — not for treating patients online.

There is no doubt that how we communicate as pet owners and caregivers is changing. I believe it is changing for the better, but we are all still figuring out how best to proceed and what to expect from each other. So my answer to the question? I think it’s fine to ask your veterinarian to be Facebook friends with you, but only if you will not be upset if he declines the offer. Many doctors will.

What’s your answer? Do you think pet owners should be Facebook friends with their veterinarians? Are you? If so, what experiences (good or bad) have you had?