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It's Not About Right and Wrong - Veterinary Complaints and Negligence

Sep 26, 2019

Within VCMS complaints, owners can feel that the vet or practice team ‘got it wrong’. This can be an incredibly difficult situation for both the owner and the practice. The owner feels let down and may question their decision to go to that practice. The vets involved will feel aggrieved that their veterinary judgment and practice is being questioned. 

At the VCMS we hear about the impact of this situation on both involved. 

There will be situations where errors and mistakes happen. There will also be situations where the decisions and recommendations made by the practice were appropriate or reasonable at the time and given the symptoms seen. 

If it is later discovered that the diagnosis was incorrect or ultimately alternative treatment did work, then owners can feel like the practice were ‘wrong’. 

Based on our experience in resolving veterinary complaints, here are some common reflections which may help both parties in this scenario: 

1. Keep dialogue open - A different view from another practice does not mean the first practice was wrong. It may have been reasonable on the information available at the time. Evolving conditions can give us 20/20 hindsight. Keep talking and speak with the practice to understand what has happened; 

2. As an owner, if you believe the other practice has suggested they disagree with the view of the first practice, ask them to explain why so you are able to raise specific points with the first practice.

3. Should an owner want to raise allegations of negligence, there are two elements which must be established: 

     a) A reasonably competent vet or vet nurse would not have acted in this way/made this decision;

     b) If the care had met the level expected from a competent vet, the outcome would have been different; 

     c) There is a financial cost, i.e. further or more expensive treatment was needed or where an animal sadly passes away, the monetary value of the animal. This is difficult for owners when many of us, consider our animals as part of the family.   

4. As a vet in this situation, try not to respond defensively. Seek to understand why the owner feels the way they do, and what has caused or encouraged their belief that something has gone wrong. There are further VCMS resources available which can help practices approach this situation.  

If the complaint involves a ‘what if’ scenario, for example, the owner takes the animal to another practice straight away or the treatment/outcome would have been the same, then a claim for negligence is unlikely to succeed. 

An owner may want to share their view, explain the impact and help the practice to learn for the future (Quality Improvement) and can escalate if they do not feel this feedback is well received or handled by the practice.

If an animal owner feels a vet or vet nurse in the practice has been negligent, we must remember this will be judged based on independent vet opinion (expert witness), and not an owner’s belief. If the practice has denied any allegation within a formal complaint, then the owner would need an expert opinion to persuade them to review their decision, or to persuade a court if legal action is taken. Ahead of your VCMS mediation conversations, it is helpful to obtain that independent opinion so this can be explored in the VCMS mediation which is without prejudice and confidential. 

Unlike legal proceedings, mediation in the VCMS process is not restricted to financial outcomes. A county court is really only able to award compensation.  A court will decide, on the evidence, whether the vet has been proven to be negligent. Without independent vet opinion to support the belief that something has gone wrong, allegations are unlikely to be proven. The VCMS does not make a judgment on who is right or wrong. Many complaints are not as clear cut as this, despite the parties’ beliefs. Mediation does not impose a decision and the VCMS team will remain impartial. It allows for a more creative conversation that may led to resolution as the decision on whether a solution resolves the complaint, sits in the hands of the two parties. 

 

Independent mediation for veterinary professionals and their clients