Defending Your Veterinary License
A pet owner files a complaint against you. Your licensing agency gets involved. What now? Respond calmly using these tips.
How veterinary boards work
All licensing boards share an identical mission: to protect consumers and their animals. They also manage licensure and continuing education of veterinarians in their states. However, when it comes to meting out discipline to veterinarians who violate state veterinary laws, boards can become lightning rods. That’s because consumers who may have lost a pet and veterinarians who stand to lose their licenses come into stark conflict.
Given their mission, boards are judicious in how they handle complaints. They’re not quick to revoke licenses, nor do they automatically protect veterinarians who have become the subject of a complaint. Instead, they attempt to occupy the middle ground of upholding consumer rights, while also giving veterinarians a fair hearing.
Disciplinary cases typically start the same way. Consumers believe their veterinarian treated their animal improperly or negligently and then complain to the board. The board must then investigate to see if the complaint has merit and take appropriate action.
Although state veterinary boards handle complaints somewhat differently, there are common approaches. For example, normally a practicing veterinarian conducts an initial review of the grievance to determine if it’s justified. If the reviewer finds the complaint has merit, a second reviewer who is unknown to the first evaluates the case. The matter only moves forward if both reviewers agree wrongdoing likely occurred.
If the offense is relatively minor, the full board might issue a citation and a respective fine. In California, for example, fines in such cases range from $50 to $1,500. However, when the two veterinarian reviewers agree a serious infraction may have occurred, they will refer the case to the full board or their state attorney general.
Minor infractions include errors, such as misinterpreting an x-ray. Serious cases involve allegations of gross incompetence, criminality, unprofessional conduct or drug abuse. A record of frequent complaints also may increase the odds of facing serious disciplinary action.
Whether a consumer makes a minor or serious complaint against you, the result is always the same: high level of stress. This is understandable, but also not the end of the world, since you must continue serving your other clients. Also, filing a claim with your malpractice insurer will provide access to legal representation. An attorney can help you frame your initial response to the board and also guide you through the entire disciplinary process.
How to write a response letter
Once the board decides to pursue disciplinary actions against a veterinarian, it will notify the person by mail of its decision. It will also require a written response from the veterinarian.
Don’t use your letter to express anger or frustration with the animal owner. Instead, respond to each point the agency raises, explaining the rationale for your actions.
If the agency doesn’t provide a full copy of the complaint, ask for it. You’ll need as much background as possible to fully justify your care decisions.
Veterinary boards are highly concerned with the quality of care delivered. Respond by explaining your clinical assessment, diagnosis, care plan and treatments. Be explicit, since the veterinarian reviewing the case may not share your care standard.
Consult with a defense attorney before responding to the agency letter. You are entitled to free legal guidance under the terms of your malpractice insurance policy. Make good use of this benefit.
After you’ve drafted the letter, relax; you gave it a strong effort. All you can do now is await the agency’s decision. Four outcomes are possible, as the agency may:
- Dismiss the complaint.
- Issue a formal complaint against you.
- Remand the case for further investigation.
- Request a meeting.
How to meet with your regulator
Some state regulators prefer informal sessions. Others prefer quasi-legal proceedings. They may record your statements and potentially use your words against you.
Who will attend the meeting? Usually, an agency attorney, a veterinarian serving on the agency’s disciplinary board and an investigator. The animal owner normally will not be there.
Depending on the situation, the agency’s goal will either be further fact-finding or moving toward complaint resolution. The latter option will commonly involve the regulator persuading you to agree to a disciplinary action. These can range from probationary periods requiring action from you to license suspension or revocation.
In most states, veterinarians can either agree to a disciplinary action or not agree. If the veterinarian agrees, the full board or its leader must also approve the outcome.
Also possible are non-disciplinary actions, such as a written warning to cease and desist from the care practice that generated the complaint.
How to handle a formal inquiry
If you don’t agree to the disciplinary action, the agency may decide to pursue a formal complaint against you. This will become public and may involve a local prosecutor or another attorney pursuing the case. In licensing matters, a state’s attorney general might get involved.
Since these inquiries may be akin to a legal proceeding, an administrative law judge will often oversee the process and allow recording. Witnesses provide testimony and submit themselves to cross-examination. Opening and closing statements are also standard features.
At least one member of the licensing board will attend.
After the session, the administrative law judge might make a recommendation, after which the entire veterinary board decides whether the hearing proved a violation of the state Veterinary Practice Act.
After reviewing all the evidence, the veterinary board decides whether a violation occurred. Based on the state, its decision standard will either be “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence.” Either way, expect a board decision to take months or even years.
Veterinarian claim prevention tips
- Familiarize yourself with the Practice Act in your state– Know the actions that carry a high risk of client complaints and regulatory follow-up.
- Understand what veterinarian malpractice claim prevention entails– Practice veterinary medicine defensively at all times.
- Keep detailed records of animal care provided and why– Adhere to the highest standards of care.
- Communicate often and transparently with clients– Create a substantial paper trail. Attempt to resolve dissatisfaction proactively before it turns into a formal complaint.
- Be careful with attempts to collect payment from animal owners– They may retaliate by alleging you provided negligent care to their pets.
- Be alert to the first signs of client discontent– Contact your malpractice insurer immediately to request guidance on handling the situation before it becomes full-blown litigation.
- If a customer sues you, seek veterinary malpractice claim tips from your attorney and insurer– Follow their guidance on limiting communications with the plaintiff.
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