Written by Mike Davies BVetMed CertVR CertSAO ACIArb FRCVS
The veterinary profession is extremely highly qualified. High academic achievement is needed to gain a place on a veterinary degree course, the course itself is rigorous and veterinarians in most countries now have an obligation to participate in continuing education throughout their professional lives. In general then, the public can be reassured that the veterinary profession is extremely well qualified and provides an excellent service. This is borne out by the relatively low number of complaints against veterinarians that are pursued through the Courts or through professional regulatory bodies.
However, occasionally owners do find themselves dissatisfied and wish to take matters further. Should you be in this position make sure that you record all communications (spoken or written) between yourself and the practice, and make sure to record appropriate dates and locations. Always take professional legal opinion before you commence any proceedings.
If you do end up in conflict with your veterinarian present the facts clearly and try to avoid becoming too emotional.
Why do things go wrong ?
From time to time, despite everyone's best efforts a clinical case does not progress as well as is expected.
For example, broken legs sometimes do not heal properly the first time that they are repaired. This does not necessarily mean that the surgeon who repaired the fracture didn't do his or her job properly. There are many reasons why the ends of the bones may not respond normally to the healing process, and a callus or union does not form. This leads to a delay in healing or even total non-union - which usually requires further treatment.
Such an event is understandably worrying for an owner - because their animal is not up and running as quickly as everyone expected and more surgery might be needed. In addition, there will be associated financial implications ie the cost of treatment goes up.
It is important to remember that living animals are not precision built mechanical devices ! Biological processes are complex and, unlike repairing a car, in medicine an absolute guarantee for a perfect result every time that treatment is administered simply can not be given.
Does this mean that Veterinarians NEVER make mistakes ?
NO it does not ! Veterinarians are human beings just like you and I are and, despite their training and experience, occasionally they will make mistakes.
However, it is important to recognize that the last thing your veterinarian wants is for your pet's health to be poor. Veterinarians have spent a long time training to become clinicians and their primary motive for working in the profession is to improve animal health and welfare. He or she really does want to treat your pet successfully first time and to keep it healthy.
On the few occasions when things go wrong it is a difficult time for everyone...owners, vets and other staff such as nurses and receptionists. Try not to get upset.
Many cases that I am aware of which have gone all the way to Court have escalated simply because of poor communication between the veterinarian and the client - and vice versa. Once tempers fray or confidence is lost ..the fighting gloves are off and everyone's lives are disrupted until the matter is resolved.
Below I offer some of my own suggestions as to how best to handle such a situation ....but I sincerely hope that you never have to go all the way down the road.
What should I do FIRST ?
If you are not happy about the progress or the outcome of your pet's treatment the first thing you should do is :
Veterinary practices are busy places, so it would be best if the meeting could be held outside surgery hours.Use this meeting to discuss openly and frankly your concerns. BUT be prepared - professional people in general often do not take kindly to having their professional judgment or activities questioned ! Try to be matter of fact, avoid excessive emotional outbursts and try not to get angry !! A smile can often defuse a potentially explosive situation. Smiling does NOT mean that you will be any less firm in expressing your concerns.
The meeting must not be arranged just so that you can let off steam ! There must be a purpose and your objective must be to achieve that purpose. If you believe you are entitled to an explanation of events, an apology, financial compensation or something else - be clear about it and ask for it.
If possible plan in advance what you will say if your veterinarian's response does not satisfy your objectives. What options do you have? Do you intend to stay with the practice or move your custom elsewhere? Do you intend to pursue the matter further ? If so - say so. Planning in advance will help you to stay calm and in control.
OK I spoke to my veterinarian but I am still not happy with his/her response - what next ?
If, following a head to head meeting with your veterinarian, you are still unsatisfied ask to speak to the most Senior Partner, Director or owner of the practice. If your veterinarian is the most senior person, ask if there someone else in the practice who you can talk to. When personalities are changed it is sometimes easier to discuss matters calmly and reach agreement and a satisfactory outcome.
OK, but I am not happy about the treatment of my animal at the practice
Veterinarians that have a difficult case to manage often refer it to a specialist for a second opinion, and many countries now have higher qualifications for veterinarians wishing to develop special interests. If you are not happy about the way that your pet's treatment is progressing ask your veterinarian to arrange for a second opinion. This could be to someone else in the same practice, but more usually it will be to someone in another practice, a referral centre or a University.
If your pet has unfortunately died and you don't understand why you can ask your veterinarian to arrange for an independent post-mortem examination.
I believe my basic consumer rights have been broken
The veterinary profession is subject to the same legislation as any other service provider. In selling products, goods and services veterinary practices must conform to all appropriate legislation in your country and you will be entitled to bring legal action against them if you have a genuine grievance and can not reach a satisfactory out-of-court settlement.
In many countries it is possible to pursue small claims yourself through the Courts, but interpretation of law is not easy for lay people, and I would advise you to employ the services of a professional legal advisor experienced in consumer and/or contract law unless you really know what you are doing.
I believe my veterinarian has acted negligently and/or unprofessionally
Before you consider reporting your veterinarian for something as serious as professional negligence or unprofessional conduct make sure you are clear on the facts and understand the consequences. Are you sure that your grounds for such an allegation are correct ? Remember that the person concerned will have to fight your allegation vigorously - because if they are found guilty they can lose their livelihood because their right to practice veterinary medicine can be removed. Take professional legal advice so that you can be sure that you do have grounds for such an allegation.
There are professional bodies and procedures in each country which deal with allegations of this type. In the UK you should write in the first instance to :
Send a letter requesting a Complaint
Form on which you can set out your complaint.
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