Professionals hold a position of trust and responsibility and clients expect professionals to conduct themselves in a way that justifies this trust. With this status, veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses carry a burden of accountability.
Very occasionally one of your team may find themselves before the RCVS to face allegations relating to their fitness to practice following from a complaint made by a client; from a colleague; or from self-referral following from a clinical mistake.
There is a comprehensive amount of information freely available to veterinary surgeons and nurses on what they should do if they are faced with a concern that has been raised against them. However, there are also steps that a practice can take to ensure that any resulting damage to the reputation of employees, any negative public perception and the adverse impact on the profession’s image is minimised. So, in these circumstances, what should the practice do?
If they have not been contacted directly, notify the person that concerns have been raised against them and that an investigation may be conducted by the RCVS.
It is important, though, to be supportive and proportionate in your dealings with your employee and to follow your internal policies. A referral to counselling or a peer support programme should be considered. It should be noted that a referral to the RCVS is often a stressful experience and especially so for those surgeons and nurses with otherwise unblemished records.
The practice should use the intervening time to get its house in order and collect information that may be required by the RCVS, the employee and the practice itself should a formal investigation be undertaken.
Manage the risks to your practice
From a regulatory perspective, a fair and proper fitness to practise process cannot be rushed and it will take time. In some cases, however, the concerns will be very serious and there may be a real risk that the behaviour will be repeated, perhaps with the potential to cause harm to animals or the public.
A well-managed practice will have ensured that all their professional activities are covered by professional indemnity insurance or equivalent arrangements should the worst-case scenario develop.
Comply with policies and procedures
Your fitness to practise policies may permit that it is necessary to consider whether interim measures are required to minimise any risks; for example, temporary suspension of the veterinary surgeon or nurse from practising for a period of time.
Generally speaking, the RCVS will write to the surgeon/nurse to inform them that a concern has been reported against them. At this point, they will be asked to provide their comments on the concern. It is usually appropriate for the surgeon/nurse to inform their practice manager about the concern that has been raised against them at this stage.
Of course, there is no compulsion on them to inform the practice (especially as the concerns may not be substantiated). However, it may well be worthwhile for the practice to introduce into its standard terms of employment and service contracts that the practice must be informed of any concerns received from the RCVS against a member of the team. This is so the practice can ensure that personnel are adequately supported and can balance this with the ongoing obligation to safeguard the public and the profession.
The use of interim measures
If it is considered that interim measures are required, these should be proportionate to the level of risk and should be periodically assessed for suitability as the substantive investigation progresses. Full and proper reasons should be given if a decision is made to invoke interim measures.
It may be reassuring to know that only a very small number of concerns that are raised with the RCVS are progressed beyond the initial stage (assessment and investigation of the concern) and similarly only a small number progress beyond the second stage (consideration of the information by a committee) to the third and final stage (a disciplinary hearing).