No one is truly surprised when an online retailer begins selling the major veterinary channel flea and tick control products. Irked, yes, angry, perhaps.
But what of the handful of web sites run by veterinarians selling prescription parasite control, normally restricted to sale only within a veterinarian-client-patient relationship.
Veterinarians selling ethical-channel flea control products such as Frontline, Advantage, Program and Revolution are discovering tow sides of the Internet coin-the pros from customers who are pushing for Internet-related services from their pet's health care provider, and the cons from colleagues and manufacturers who view the online sale of flea control products as a threat to the sales policies they seek to protect.
At stake is a market estimated at as much as $860 million in 1999, according to Michael W. Dryden, DVM, Ph.D., who spoke at the recent American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine forum.
Do veterinarians' activities over the Internet fall within the boundaries of manufacturer's sales policies? That depends on the manufacturer. Animal health companies, such as Bayer Corp, are currently reviewing their sales policies in light of the increasing Internet activity by veternarians-and others.
Merial considers the sale(order, payment and actual delivery) of Merial small animal products to pet owners via the Internet to fall outside of the provision of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, making it inconsistent with their official sales policy.
If such polarization about the issue exists, why would a veterinarian bother to host a site that sells flea control products? Because there is a need, said Steven Weintein, DVM, owner of five clinics in New York and a partner in the company that runs Ezpets.com, a web site that sells pet merchandise to consumers. "I am a veterinarian in private practice, but I feel veterinary medicine is getting to expensive for the average person. A lot of people greatly appreciate having access to medications on the Internet, including owners of pets with chronic illnesses, those needing cardiac medication or multi-pet households. There's always a need for a good product at a better price as long as it is done ethically. It has to be done through a veterinarian-patient-client relationship," he said.
A similar web site, petvetsupplies.com, has been linked by an address to Dr. Jack Hammett of Ruther Blen, Va., who declined to be interviewed.
While Leslie Pollack, senior director of small animal marketing for Merial, said the company does support veterinary clinics' utilization of the Internet to promote and educated their clients on Merial's small animal products, she said product sales are out of the question. "By requiring the clinic to be the sale-point of Merial's products, we are ensuring that the client will have access to professional counsel, which is integral to Merial's product philosophy."
Novartis Animal Health has a similar bent, but leaves open the option for veterinarians to sell to their current clients via the Internet. "We have a strict sales policy and will sell directly only to veterinarians," said John Smith, vice president of marketing for Novartis Animal Health. "We insist on a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, even on the Internet. When it comes to a relationship where they don't see the pet, we will follow and enforce our strict anti-diversion policy. We will stop selling to a veterinarian who doesn't have that veterinarian-client-patient relationship. They have to be caring for that client's pet. It cant' be a veterinarian in California selling to a client who lives in New York, when they've never even met them in person."
"Once veterinarians purchase products, the manufacturer has no control over how the product is sold," said Laurie Griffin, BVSc, marketing manager for Advantage from Bayer. "Company sales policies are not sate or federal law. If a manufacturer believes that a veterinarian is in some way compromising a product in the manner in which he/she handles it, the only recourse available is to stop shipping the product to that veterinarian. This has been a last resort, but a part of a simple marketing landscape up until now."
Pfizer's policy regarding sales of Revolution is open with regard to the Internet. "Certainly because it's a prescription product, the Food and Drug Administration dictates that it be sold through a veterinarian, but just as we don't, and can't, dictate specific pricing or how the product is prescribed, we can't dictate to a veterinarian how they would choose to dispense the product," said Denise Ulrich, marketing communications manager, companion animal division of Pfizer. "However, we believe the strongest part of any product is the relationship with the veterinarian and client so that the veterinarian is prescribing to meet the needs of that pet and owner. No matter how the veterinarian choose to dispense the product, we feel strongly about the relationship with the veterinarian and the pet owner. We consider the Internet to be another dispensing opportunity. It's no different than any other opportunity for a veterinarian. They have to decide what opportunities work best for them."
"Manufacturers, including Bayer cannot be involved in retail pricing; such practice is illegal," Dr. Griffin said. "But obviously anything that adversely impacts the profession is a major concern to us. We are now in discussions with our corporate attorneys and outside legal advisors to answer the challenges that Internet sales raise-not only for manufacturers, but for the profession we're dedicated to and ultimately for the pet owners and the animals in their care."
How do other veterinarians feel about colleagues selling these products over the Internet? Some are angry, others don't care.
"I don't think someone else selling this stuff is that big of a deal," Tom Greek, DVM, at Eastlake Animal Hospital in Yorba Linda, Calif., said. "In the old days, before these products were available, you could buy flea products at the pet store, feed store or market. People bought them at the veterinarian because there was a convenience factor, but otherwise when people came in it didn't affect the relationship. I'd rather have my clients buy high quality products to treat their pets and use it than not buy it at all."
Ezpets.com has been in operation for about a year and is a legitimate pet pharmacy, Dr. Weinstein said. "I did this as an experiment; whether I'll continue, I don't know. Personally, I don't know if the veterinarian community is read for it," he added. "Veterinarians are so afraid of anything that could shake up the industry. Many are using the drug markup to make up for the price on a knee surgery and they depend on the revenue those drug between selling pharmaceuticals and practicing medicine and bringing value to our clients in new ways."