Exclusive DVM Survey: Client demand fuels spike in complaints to state boards


National Report - When a medical case goes bad, consumers are more likely to complain to state boards than in years past, veterinarians report.

National Report — When a medical case goes bad, consumers are more likely to complain to state boards than in years past, veterinarians report.

Is it a sign of the times, a symptom of increasing costs or another measure of the growing importance of animals in society?

An exclusive DVM Newsmagazine survey reports that 64 percent of veterinarians believe consumers complain more frequently to veterinary state boards today than in the past (Table 1).

Table 1: Compared to the past, how often do consumers complain to state authorities today about the delivery of veterinary care?

That isn't far from reality, according to follow-up telephone interviews conducted by DVM Newsmagazine editors with 50 state regulatory boards (Table 2).

Table 2: Consumer complaints filed against DVMs with state agencies

Complaints against veterinarians are swelling, according to an examination of state licensing-board records. From the 37 states reporting to a DVM Newsmagazine survey, about 3,510 complaints were logged with state authorities last year — an increase of about 14 percent from 2005.

For 2007, the data are on track for another DVM record-breaker.

With the largest population of veterinarians (7,691), California led the list with 667 consumer complaints against veterinarians in 2006. Florida and Texas ranked second and third, respectively.

"People are getting more savvy; they are getting more knowledgeable," says Sue Geranen, executive officer of the California Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. While consumer complaints against veterinarians in California peaked in 2003 at 811, Geranen believes that complaints are on the upswing nationally.

"Most of the boards are on the Internet now; they are more high-profile than they used to be. The cost of veterinary care is also going up, so consumers will start paying attention."

In Pennsylvania, they already are.

State-agency data obtained by DVM Newsmagazine shows a steady rise in the number of complaints and disciplinary actions leveled against veterinarians from fiscal year 1998 to FY 2007. The decade saw nearly a 12-fold increase in the numbers of sanctions (Table 3).

Table 3: Pennsylvania disciplinary sanction history

While complaint totals remain just a fraction of the millions of animals seen and treated each year, the data signal a changing market dynamic.

Driven by an increase in veterinary-care standards, growing client expectations about the quality of veterinary services, the growing importance of pets to owners and escalating costs of care, the survey shows there is great distinction between a consumer complaint and a state-board action/sanction, which requires a formal investigative process. (See "Anatomy of a state board complaint".)

So, what's the good news? The number of serious sanctions, including suspensions and loss of license, is a very small proportion of state-board remedies in cases of suspected negligence. The bad news, if the trend holds true, is that you might be more likely to receive a letter from your licensing agency. In addition, many of the complaints have more to do with poor record-keeping, officials say, than medical incompetence.

Table 4: Do you know a local practitioner who has faced a state board inquiry?

DVM Newsmagazine's survey reports that 69 percent of respondents know a colleague who has faced a state-board inquiry, yet more than half of those respondents don't fear intervention by a licensing board (Tables 4 and 5). Practice owners are a little more uneasy about the whole prospect of fending off a client complaint, compared to associates.

Table 5: Do you fear state board intervention?

About 62 percent of veterinarians responding to the survey gave their boards positive ratings as a consumer watchdog. One-quarter said they are not aggressive enough, while only 12 percent thought they were too aggressive (Table 6).

Table 6: How would you rate your state boards ability as a consumer watchdog?

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