The idea of being sued is pretty stressful- a fear built into many professionals from vet school. So much so, that according to research, around 77% of vets worry about it regularly.
The good news is that this is pretty unlikely to happen- even if you’re relatively inexperienced. In fact, in data from the UK and Australia, there appears to be no correlation between experience and veterinary board complaints (just to reassure you new grads out there!).
Although this is sure to be a relief for many, veterinary complaints still happen and they are no laughing matter- something to be avoided if at all possible.
In this article, we discuss what some of the most common veterinary complaints are, and what you need to do to avoid being at the wrong end of a complaint or litigation.
A Breakdown Of The Most Common Veterinary Complaints
The glib answer to how to avoid a complaint is to recommend no screwing up in the first instance. But since we’re all human, when it comes to veterinary complaints, the same issues tend to crop up as causal factors.
One of the primary causes of complaints is misdiagnosis.
When this occurs, misdiagnosis can delay, prevent critical treatment or result in the wrong treatment being administered. For example, if you were an Australian vet treating a dog with ataxia for a spinal injury- and it turned out to be a tick bite intoxication, you may well end up withholding potentially life-saving therapy until it is too late.
Injuries sustained during treatment (iatrogenic injuries) are also prevalent as causes of complaints.
An example of this would be applying a cast to a fractured leg too tightly leading to occlusion of blood supply and (in a worst-case scenario) the animal developing a gangrenous leg- one that requires amputation.
Other common causes of complaints include:
-Instances where treatment is unsuccessful.
-Scenarios when clients don’t have their expectations managed as to the likely outcome of treatment.
-Problems associated with communication errors or breakdowns in communication.
-Problems are caused when a vet over-reaches their skills set and causes harm or substandard outcome.
Thankfully, these are all mishaps that can be avoided by following some general principles.
How To Avoid Veterinary Complaints
The first principle is that you should stay up-to-date with the latest knowledge and best practices in your field. Attending educational and networking events, as well as reading journals and practicing new procedures can minimize critical mistakes. Continuing your education is also a good way to boost your confidence in practice.
The second is to ensure you have a good grasp of a technique or therapy before performing it. This means reading up on it and most likely watching someone else perform it – either in real-time or via video. If you are performing a technique for the first time, it is also wise to have a mentor nearby to help you if/when needed.
Working in a supportive environment is also hugely beneficial. It’s no good if you have a clinical leader that is occasionally around to answer questions but absent when you need them most. A lack of guidance leaves room for avoidable errors, exposing you to greater risk.
That said, veterinary interventions always carry risks and there will be no skill development happening if you are not stepping out of your comfort zone. The important thing is to assess, plan, and control/minimize the hazard.
Always treat clients the way you want to be treated. Communication mishaps are common in practice, so ensure you are being clear in your intentions and plan before, during, and after undertaking any work. Aside from the clinical detail, you must be clear on the costs and likely outcomes. Allowing clients to ask questions during the decision-making process can also be incredibly important. Doing so helps to manage a client’s expectations accurately- a big part of avoiding upset.
And finally, take clear, accurate, and timely notes. You need to make sure you are writing down all your interactions with clients and pets as accurately as possible. This allows for better patient care as well as better client/team communication. The patient chart (or clinical record) is also your best form of defense in the event of a complaint.
How To Navigate The Complaint Process
Sadly, we are all human and sometimes mistakes happen.
When they do, most things can be sorted out quickly between the practice and client without escalation to third parties or boards. This doesn’t make the process of dealing with a complaint any less unpleasant, but it should help to incentivize you to learn how to handle complaints as a core skill.
No matter how experienced you are as a vet, receiving a complaint tends to put a downer on your day. But every cloud has a silver lining. The best way to look at a complaint is to put it in perspective and see it as not a personal attack, but as a form of (very direct) feedback. In effect, a means of personal development.
If you can learn how to deal with an upset client then you have the opportunity to create a win-win scenario. The client wins because they feel listened to. The vet also wins because they can gain valuable insight into a blind spot of their skills or service which they can improve upon thereafter.
Many vets miss out on this opportunity by handling things badly and escalating feelings of hurt, mistrust, and judgment on both sides.
Consider the following: when a client complains (assuming it is not an entirely disastrous situation) you have a choice. You may get defensive, or dismissive, and escalate the issue. Or, you might listen carefully, ask questions, and do your best to understand and empathize with the client’s point of view (we’re not saying this is easy, but it is perfectly possible with the right training).
You might follow up this empathetic and curious listening session with a statement like:
‘I’m really sorry this occurred and that you had a bad experience. This was not my intention at all. I care about you and ‘muffin’, so I wonder if you can tell me what I can do to fix this?’
What follows may or may not be an acceptable solution, and you may, or may not, be in a position to enact it. But by listening you can get a better grasp of the situation, and start moving towards a resolution. Even if that might mean negotiating a settlement where everyone has to compromise.
There are of course certain instances where the problem is not going to be resolved, most commonly because the issue is quite serious. In these circumstances, a complaint may occur. But such is life in veterinary medicine. If you have followed the principles above and worked within your skillset, though the experience may be unpleasant, and there will likely be some learnings, the chances of losing a license are rare.
Extreme career-limiting or ending punishments are generally reserved for professional dishonesty or acting in a way that brings the profession into serious disrepute.
The Bottom Line
Although veterinary complaints can cause a lot of anxiety for vets, as long as they follow careful procedure and protocol, it is possible to minimize the frequency and severity of these issues. And being sued is an unlikely prospect accordingly.
Fundamentally, most issues in practice can be resolved through careful communication and good practice.