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Should we listen to evidence-based or anecdotal veterinary medicine?

A reminder that vets must do their best to stay away from anecdotes and move towards evidence-based advice

29 July 2018, at 3:26pm

In 2009 the University of Nottingham founded the Centre for Evidence-based Veterinary Medicine (CEVM). The definition of evidence-based veterinary medicine (EVM) used by the CEVM is:

  • Evidence-based veterinary medicine is the use of best relevant evidence in conjunction with clinical expertise to make the best possible decision about a veterinary patient. 
  • The circumstances of each patient, and the circumstances and values of the owner/carer, must also be considered when making an evidence-based decision. 

The CEVM goes on to say that “The basis of EVM is good clinicians using good science to make good decisions about their patients to benefit their health and welfare. To be able to do this the veterinary profession needs high quality, relevant science made readily available to them in clinical practice.” 

An anecdote has various definitions, but the two most common would likely be: 

  • A short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person. 
  • An account regarded as unreliable or hearsay. 

Now of course anecdotal stories can be usefully told in a lecture or demonstration. Indeed, it has been said that the author is fond of the occasional anecdote in his presentations. Such anecdotes are clearly identified as such and are usually involving the field of equine reproduction. Having spent over 30 years in this field, I would like to think my anecdotes come from some sort of knowledge base. However, any anecdotal stories must ultimately defer to EVM.

I firmly believe that if science is to progress then scientific journals must have freedom of speech and be able to challenge current thinking. With that privilege, however, comes the responsibility to be disciplined in checking that claims are not politically motivated and that they stand up to basic scrutiny.

On this basis, I was surprised and disappointed to read a letter recently in a veterinary publication. The letter was by an author apparently based in North America who claimed that “several horses [in the Royal Wedding procession] were tossing their heads, mouthing and chomping and drooling in obvious oral discomfort”. He went on to write that the system puts “blind tradition” ahead of “animal welfare and respect”. I don’t know the author personally nor do I know of his field of expertise. There were no affiliations published along with his name so readers are left not knowing anything about him, unless they already happen to. 

He may well be an equine veterinary surgeon, equine behaviourist and/or horse rider of considerable experience. Indeed, he may have specific expertise in equine veterinary care, equine behaviour or the use of tack in riding or carriage driving. Although the content of his letter would lead one to presume not. And of course, he is perfectly entitled to his view as much as the next person. However, myself and fellow BEVA council members are concerned that his assumptions are an inaccurate reflection of the behaviour he has described, demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of equine ethology and are not evidence-based.

BEVA wishes to distance itself from the views expressed by the journal on this issue and hopes that no one is left with the impression that either the letter or the accompanying press release are supported by the association that represents equine vets. 

As a trusted profession, it is unquestionably our responsibility to provide clear, accurate, evidence-based information and advice on equine veterinary matters in all circumstances – whether speaking with clients, with peers or to the general public. No matter the temptation, there is no excuse to slip into the easy tide of fashionable or sensationalist opinion, simply in the hope of garnering five minutes of fame.

Jonathan Pycock is an equine claims consultant for the Veterinary Defence Society and an equine reproduction expert. He is the immediate past president of the British Equine Veterinary Association.

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