Receiving notice of a complaint from the RCVS can come as a great shock but in the vast majority of instances, as long as a complaint is dealt with promptly, all will be resolved.
If you ever find yourself in this position it is really important that you access support during this stressful period – veterinary professionals often take even minor complaints to heart. Vetlife Helpline, run by trained volunteers with experience of the veterinary profession, is available to provide confidential support on 0303 040 2551 or by Vetlife Helpline anonymous e-mail (your address will be removed).
The first thing that springs to many minds in relation to regulation is ‘striking off’. However:
- Only around 20% of all concerns raised with RCVS are progressed beyond stage one for further consideration by the Preliminary Investigation Committee
- For RCVS to issue a significant sanction, up to and including striking off, you have to be sent to a Disciplinary Committee hearing
- Less than 1% of complaints are ever sent to a formal Disciplinary Committee hearing
- The RCVS is concerned with professional misconduct and a single mistake, even one that means the death of a much loved pet,or financially valuable animal, is not usually a matter for the Disciplinary Committee
- Similarly, the ‘Code of Professional Conduct’ and its supporting guidance offer a benchmark, not a rule book, and a single breach of the code, unless extremely serious, is unlikely to result in a Disciplinary Committee hearing
One of the roles of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons is to maintain standards of professional conduct within the veterinary profession. In order to do this, veterinary surgeons and registered veterinary nurses have their own Codes of Professional Conduct to follow:
- Code of professional conduct for veterinary surgeons
- Code of professional conduct for veterinary nurses
RCVS also publish supporting guidance on a range of issues from fees to euthanasia.
The College can only respond to complaints about a named individual that fall within the scope of its jurisdiction. In common with other regulatory bodies, the College’s powers are limited to cases in which it is alleged that a member is guilty of serious professional misconduct or has been convicted of a criminal offence, i.e. where there is evidence of impaired fitness to practise.
RCVS are currently trialling an Alternative Dispute Resolution system called the Veterinary Client Mediation Service to address customer service complaints considered inappropriate for handling by the College.
What should you do after RCVS notify you of a complaint?
If a complaint is made against you, it is really important to reply to the initial letter from the RCVS promptly and carefully – you are usually required to reply within 14 days. If you don’t do this, this may in itself be a disciplinary matter. However, you may be able to ask RCVS for more time if, for example, you want to check some facts with a colleague who is away. We suggest the following order of action:
1. Contact your professional indemnity insurer
Your professional indemnity insurer may also cover you in the event of RCVS disciplinary action. If so, it is important to contact them at the earliest opportunity and take their advice as to the wording of your response.
The Veterinary Defence Society provide such cover. If you haven’t got this cover you may need to get your own legal advice.
2. Reply promptly and thoughtfully
Your response may be presented in evidence at any subsequent hearing so think it through carefully. An ill-thought-out and incautiously worded response sent in haste may get you into deeper water.
- Set out the facts as objectively as you can and avoid any criticism of the client
- If you do not have VDS cover then it may help to show a colleague your response before you send it or to sleep on it if you are feeling rattled by it
- You could ask other colleagues involved in the complaint to write to the RCVS to give their account of events, or at least tell the RCVS their names
- The RCVS may contact your employer as part of the fact-finding process
- If you want to add information, for example, to clinical records, don’t amend the record itself
- Instead set this information out on a clearly separate appendix or in a letter to the RCVS, or if appropriate, as an addition to the clinical records with the date that this additional information was added
- It is important to remember that a copy of your response will, in most cases, be sent to the client. However, under some circumstances, you may request that your response is not disclosed to the client, for example, if there are concerns about your safety or if your letter contains information about your own health
The RCVS Health & Performance Protocols
The RCVS Health Protocol and Performance Protocol means that not all serious complaints have to be sent to the Disciplinary Committee if there is no public interest in doing so.
Instead, rather than be referred to the Disciplinary Committee and where appropriate, medical treatment can be sought for medical problems and training and help can be sought for performance issues.
Similarly, although few complaints are received about elderly practitioners, it may be that voluntary removal and retirement is an option in some cases.
You should talk to your insurance provider and the RCVS if you think any of these apply.