In 1958, after working for other veterinarians, I established my own practice in Ventura County, Calif. Ventura County is the size of some Eastern states. It is situated between the better-known California counties of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
There was only one small-animal-only practice in the county in 1958. All the other veterinary practices were mixed. Every colleague in the county was male back then. In fact, the first two female veterinarians in Ventura County were part of my practice once it had grown into a group in the '60s.
Attendance at our monthly Ventura County Veterinary Medical Association meetings was close to 100%, even though some members had to drive nearly an hour to attend. If someone was absent, you would hear, "Hey, where's Mackey?" or "Why isn't Josh here?" We held the monthly meetings jointly with the city of Santa Barbara Veterinary Medical Association because it was geographically convenient and because it enhanced attendance.
There were no emergency clinics back then, so at every meeting someone would get called out to make an emergency call. Except for pathology, there were no board-certified specialists in the '50s, but certain members of our association had acquired expertise in various areas, and we sometimes referred cases to them for that reason.
The excellent attendance at our monthly association meetings was not so much for the continuing education but for the camaraderie. It was a social evening spent sharing practice anecdotes, unusual cases, jokes, and stories. A couple of times a year, purely social meetings were held—our Christmas party, for example—and our spouses were included.
(When I joined the association, the Christmas party had been moved to January because December was just "too busy." The next year it was moved to February, and it was held a month later each year until, eventually, it came back to December, and then the monthly postponement began all over again. Attending the Christmas party in June or in October became a favorite local joke to members of the Ventura County Veterinary Medical Association.)
Back then, except in my practice, which grew into a group, and in a couple of others, all the doctors were in solo practice. It was a 24-7 life. Remarkably, around 1959 we voted to close our offices down at noon on Saturdays. The rest of the weekend was "emergencies only," and we had 100% compliance. We were all grateful to have a little more time at home and with our families.
It wasn't necessarily typical of every local association in the country, but in the '50s every practitioner in Ventura County adhered to the ethical code of our profession at that time. Nobody advertised. In the telephone directory, every practice and doctor were listed in small type. Once a year, we held a fee schedule meeting at which we all committed ourselves to charging minimum fees. You could charge more than the schedule, but to charge less was considered unethical.
I remember our lowering certain fees for three successive years because one doctor insisted on it. He said, "I just can't charge that much," and, despite the disapproval of the majority, his fees became the official county minimum.
I studiously avoided this minimum fee schedule and deliberately charged more than it called for, as did several of my colleagues. But none of us charged less unless it was for a charity case. All of us also participated in our country rabies control vaccination clinics, donating our time.
From all I see and hear, today it's difficult to find the camaraderie and good attendance at local meetings so common back then, as well as the professionally rigid ethical standards.
Today, our association rarely has a meeting attendance of 50%. Meanwhile, the yellow pages are filled with ads, some of them garish—and it's not just the veterinarians. The lawyers and some physicians boldly advertise too. Thank you Federal Trade Commission for destroying our code of ethics.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at www.robertmmiller.com.