Veterinarian Interests   03/02/2023

Veterinary Malpractice: Are You Covered?

By Jonathan Decker

Veterinary Malpractice: Are You Covered?

Angry clients are common in veterinary medicine. So are clients who threaten to sue. Here’s how to handle such disputes when they happen to you.

The best way to prevent malpractice lawsuits is to practice high-quality veterinary medicine, communicate openly with your clients and keep detailed charts. Yet, even with these precautions, an unhappy client may threaten to sue you. What should you do then— other than reach for your veterinary malpractice insurance policy?

At the First Sign of Trouble, Focus

Consider this scenario: It’s another busy day in your veterinary practice. You are doing paperwork in your office when one of your vet techs knocks on your door. “Doctor, do you have a second?” she asks. “Mrs. Donaldson in examination room three is upset. She’s not happy with your diagnosis and treatment of her cat, Tilly.”

“Uh-oh,” you respond. “She’s very close to Tilly, so I’m not surprised.”

“Well,” your tech continues, “she said she’s unhappy with Tilly’s progress. She complained about having to buy so many expensive medications and that they don’t work. Then she threatened to sue us.”

“At least she didn’t threaten us with a board complaint,” you reply.

“Hmmm. She did say she might consider other steps beyond litigation,” recalls your tech.

“Double trouble,” you say before taking a deep breath. “I guess I should go talk to her.”

An Unhappy Client? What Now?

If this happened in your practice, you’d be on solid ground. That’s because, from the outset, you took Mrs. Donaldson seriously and decided to intervene right away. But, in many veterinary businesses across America, which are dealing with exploding demand for their services and staff morale and retention problems, unhappy clients are just another blip in their blip-filled days.

Thus, our first piece of advice in dealing with clients who talk about suing is to take their threats seriously. Get involved immediately to uncover the root of their discontent and nip litigation in the bud. Also, buy or renew veterinarian malpractice insurance in case the worst comes to pass.

Preparing to Meet an Angry Client

Before you sit down with unhappy pet owners, remind yourself why clients sue. Often, it’s not because of poor treatment outcomes. Many times, it’s because they’re upset with how their veterinarian treated them. They may feel their veterinary practice minimized their fears and concerns, failed to communicate honestly or shut them down when they tried to speak. Or, they might have taken offense because their veterinary team didn’t empathize with them during their pet’s final illness.

In short, litigation often occurs when veterinary professionals don’t treat clients with patience and kindness and don’t validate their concerns. Sure, money can be a flashpoint. But, more often than not, the human element transforms minor client complaints into disruptive litigation.

Another preparation step is reminding yourself to stay calm and objective. Don’t begin the meeting on a defensive note. If your emotions are raging, take a moment to defuse them with an appropriate stress-reduction method. The crucial point is this: Don’t pour gasoline on explosive situations. That will only increase the likelihood of a lawsuit, not reduce it.

Finally, before you head in to speak with an angry pet owner, quickly review their case file. You want to know the events that preceded the outburst, so you can talk with authority about them.

How to Meet with a Threatening Client

There’s no single way to handle such meetings. However, use the following sequence as a general guide:

  • Establish your goals up front– Explain you heard about their concerns, but you’d like to hear what’s going on for yourself. Encourage clients to speak openly about their issues, so you can work toward achieving a fair and mutually agreeable solution. Also state you want to hear their side of the problem.
  • Encourage venting– Now encourage them to vent. Avoid defending your actions or problem solving at this moment. Simply let them speak. If you’re not clear about something, ask them to elaborate. Encourage them by asking open-ended questions beginning with “how” and “why.” While clients are speaking, show you are hearing their words by nodding, saying “uh-huh” and maintaining a forward-leaning body posture.
  • Show you understand their complaints– When they finish their accounts, summarize your takeaways. Use the phrase, “What I heard you say…” to list the facts that emerged from their narratives and outline the feelings you heard expressed. You want to leave no doubt in people’s minds that you “get” why there’s a perceived problem. However, at this stage, maintain your emotionally neutral stance, while expressing your sympathy for what they have gone through.
  • Respond to the client– If you believe your practice might have handled the situation better, you may want to make an apology-like statement. Most attorneys advise against making a straight-up apology because clients can interpret it as an admission of guilt and use it against you in court. But you can still express sympathy by saying, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this. I can tell it’s been very upsetting to you.” A quasi-apology might be enough to nudge your client off the litigation path, which will be a win-win for your clients and practice.
  • Define an acceptable outcome for both parties– Explain your position on the case. Don’t defend your actions, but put them into context for your clients. Then state your desire to resolve the dispute in a way that makes sense for you and them. Ask a question such as, “What can I do to make this situation better?” Perhaps your sympathy and a small financial concession will quell the fire. If not, probe further to identify what else they need.

If you can reach agreement, thank your clients and say there are no hard feelings. Also, express your desire to continue treating their animal, assuming you still want to. When they leave the room, pat yourself on the back for averting a lawsuit. It’s always better for veterinarians and their clients to work things out amicably rather than battle in court. It also can enhance your practice’s reputation, since clients will likely tell others about how you well you addressed their concerns.

After the Meeting

When angry, but now satisfied, clients leave your office, be sure to document your conversation in their charts. Stick to the facts and describe the agreements reached by meeting’s end. Then, make note of the follow-up items you committed to on your calendar. Dropping the ball on these will likely catapult you into court, so don’t forget to do them! At the end of the day, you have better things to do than spend time you don’t have fighting in court.

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