Unfortunately, complaints are a part of veterinary life. Even within the best-run practices veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses are often extremely disappointed when someone complains about them and understandably so. Despite management’s best intentions, they may feel isolated when dealing with complaints and be fearful of the consequences of doing so.
On the positive side, complaints can offer an opportunity for reflection and to improve the quality of care that the practice is delivering so it is important that individuals try not to take complaints personally and that the practice works together to deal constructively with complaints.
For this reason, it is important to break down a complaint. There are generally two aspects to a complaint: one that starts as a “regulatory” issue and the other which arises from a “consumer basis”.
A typical regulatory client complaint may look like this: a claimant makes an allegation to the practice that their vet failed to act with reasonable care and skill. Further, they may make a complaint against you if they think you have failed to meet the professional standards of reasonable care and skill that would be expected from a vet or that you have acted in a way that could be seen as professional misconduct.
A typical consumer-based complaint may arise where the price for the service is not agreed beforehand. In such cases the service must be provided for a reasonable price. And unless a particular timescale for performing the service is set out or agreed, the service must be carried out in a reasonable time.
As vets and nurses, you are classed as professionals and therefore owe a duty of care to your clients and patients. When providing the services, you are required to exercise reasonable skill and care. However, a vet may fail to perform their duties in a number of ways, such as failing to diagnose or providing a misdiagnosis, failing to administer proper treatment, failing to keep up to date with the latest techniques or performing a poor examination.
Veterinary practices and their surgeons are regarded as service providers and so must adhere to the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (CRA). The CRA protects your clients’ rights when they purchase your services. Furthermore, the CRA says that information which is spoken or written is binding where your client relies on it.
Dealing with a complaint
A crucial first step to defending such claims is to demonstrate (and to ensure) that as veterinary professionals you adhere to the RCVS‘s professional code of conduct. Ultimately this is the barometer against which you will be judged.
Then, it is worth considering your responsibilities to your clients in order to inform you how you should deal with a complaint. One of the better ways of dealing with complaints (and to a certain extent mitigate against future complaints) is to put yourself in the shoes of the typical complainant.
The following advice may be helpful. Veterinary surgeons must be open and honest with their clients and be respectful of their needs and requirements. You must respond promptly, fully and courteously to any complaints and criticism. You should offer independent and impartial advice. You should inform your client of any conflicts of interest, and supply them with appropriate information about the practice, including the costs of services and medicines. Communicate effectively with your clients in written and spoken English and ensure that you obtain informed consent from your client before any treatments or procedures are carried out. Do not disclose information about your client to a third party without permission.
It is noteworthy, though, that the RCVS will only deal with the most serious concerns – ie those that will affect fitness to practise and your right to work as a veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse. This will involve behaviour that has fallen far short of what is expected of a veterinary professional.
RCVS may discipline you if (after an investigation) they find in favour of the complainant. But the RCVS has no power to compensate the complainant. Therefore, it is paramount to ensure that you and the practice have adequate insurance.
Indeed, if a complaint is made against you or your practice, it is imperative that you contact your professional indemnity insurer at the earliest possible opportunity and follow scrupulously their advice on how to proceed in preference to any other advice, and seek appropriate legal advice.