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Dear Dr. Vet (Proceedings)
The role of the veterinary state licensing board
The principal role of the veterinary state licensing board is to regulate the profession having regard to protection of the public interest. The receipt of an inquiry from your state licensing board is always an occasion to be treated with thoughtfulness and candour. Too often the veterinary practitioner reacts emotionally to such inquiries, that often contain allegations of inappropriate conduct, which only tends to compromise the successful defence of such allegations. Hopefully, the following checklist will serve as a helpful protocol to adopt in responding to such inquiries.
1. Remain Objective
One of the most significant errors witnessed by those familiar with licensing board proceedings is that the recipient veterinarian reacts emotionally to the complaints leveled at him or her and provides a less than thoughtful reply. It is critically important that one remain objective as possible about the process recognizing that a key tenet of self-regulation is that ability of the regulator to deal with these types of complaints. Your response should not be viewed as an opportunity to vent your anger at the client.
2. Don't Assess Responsibility
The veterinary community is well-known for its self-effacing approach to problems in the clinic; most practitioners tend to blame themselves for miscues. In fact, in the face of a client complaint, the practitioner is among the worst skilled at assessing the problem as the practitioner is too "close to the action". Ultimately, it is the licensing board itself that will make the determination of whether or not wrongdoing exists – the practitioner's role is merely to provide evidence in support of his or her position relating to the complaint.
3. Evidence Retention
You should immediately that any evidence relevant to the complaint is secured and available for future review. In many cases the x-rays, laboratory reports, medical records including discharge instructions, records of telephone conversations, copies of consent forms and other documentary evidence will be required to successfully defend the complaint.
4. Respond to the Specific Allegation
It is key to understand that the licensing board has, as its objective, the requirement to protect the public interest. Too often the practitioner views the board as being an advocate for the profession which, while it may do so, is not its primary function. As such, some veterinarians tend to take the board into their confidence with information which otherwise compromises their position.
5. Respond Promptly and Respectfully
The state licensing board is legislatively charged with the obligation to govern the profession and practitioners must understand and respect its authority. The prudent practitioner will ensure that inquiries from the board and responded to in a punctual way.
6. No "Self-Help"
The veterinary professional under scrutiny should not engage in any discussions with the complainant once the process has been initiated. Too often the veterinarian will contact the complainant in an effort to resolve the matter or, as is sometimes the case, vent some anger. Neither tend to be helpful.
7. Don't Alter Records
In too many cases, once the complaint has been made known, the practitioner attempts to alter medical records or correspondence in an effort to provide a defense. Quite apart from the obvious ethical implications, the altering of the medical record is unlawful and would result in further serious sanctions. Experience tells us that in most cases the altered record would not have been helpful in the first place.
8. Report to your Insurer
Most policies of veterinary malpractice insurer permit the acquisition of a separate rider to cover all or part of the costs associated with defending licensing board inquiries. It is typically a requirement that you advise your insurers as soon as possible of the complaint in order for the coverage to be extended to you.
9. Be Professional
Perhaps the most important tip in responding is to provide a complete and professional commentary related to the allegations being made against you. Sometimes the complainant's letter contains a number of inflammatory statements – it is important that the response demonstrate a level of professionalism. Resist the temptation to be drawn into a "fight" with the complainant.
10. Engage an Attorney
Given that you may not be completely objective about the allegations made against you, it is prudent to have your attorney review your reply to ensure that you are not making admissions that are unnecessary nor failing to address the specific allegations. The cost of legal assistance will be worth it.
Being placed in position of defending one's conduct in circumstances where your actions are judged by your peers is always difficult and trying; however, by adopting a clear and reasoned approach in responding the licensing board inquiries, much of the anxiety of the situation can be successfully diffused.