Hauled before the state board? Take a deep breath, then read this


First step? Dont panic. When a veterinary investigator comes calling, keep your emotions in check and lawyer up.

Getty ImagesYou arrive at work on Monday to a fax from the local emergency clinic. Hi-strung, a fractious, overweight 4-year-old retriever who'd already had a couple of litters, has chewed out all her stitches, external and internal, and spent the weekend at the ER having the spay surgery you did last week redone and the looming peritonitis treated.

You are in awe but not in shock. Considering that her owners, the Highhorses, refused to purchase an Elizabethan collar (which you recommended), it's certainly not shocking that they didn't take your advice to limit the dog's activity for 10 days.

By Tuesday morning Assistant Investigator Dugan of the State Veterinary Disciplinary Unit has called. “Well, Dr. Goode,” the investigator says, “the Highhorses have filed a complaint against you alleging gross and wanton malpractice.”

Now you are in shock. You agreed to do this surgery at a tremendous discount in the first place to help avoid any more Hi-strung puppies ending up at the shelter. You even convinced your partner to extend credit to the Highhorses for most of the balance due on the account. And now they are making you defend yourself against a state board malpractice claim?

Let's list the emotions drifting through your cerebral neurons: surprise, anger, resentment, betrayal, annoyance, disgust, fear, sadness, victimization … and plenty of others. Justifiable emotions? Absolutely. Useful emotions? None of them.

At the end of the day, you unload the entire scenario on your significant other and lose a bunch of sleep. The next morning, you put on your big-girl pants and follow my recommendations in dealing with the investigator, the board and the owners of Hi-strung.

Clam up with the clients

The owners of the subject animal in a licensing board claim may well call you, particularly if the animal died as a result of the events in question. Speaking with them is unlikely to have any positive impact for you, so why would you want to discuss the case with them?

By contacting the authorities, the owners abdicated their right to hear your side of the story. They have elected to let the authorities sort out the facts and the law. In fact, even if your discussions with the owners change their opinion of your deeds 180 degrees, the licensing board will probably move forward with its investigation anyway.

Take the high road

Treat the agent with the respect and deference the position of investigator deserves. Remain friendly and confident in your discussion with the agent and at no time-no time-be disparaging with respect to the pet owners who have brought the complaint.

This is a time when taking the high road can make all the difference. The licensing board investigator has probably already spoken to the Highhorse couple and knows that they may be guilt-obsessed (they declined the e-collar) or simply dullards incapable of distinguishing between a bad outcome and bad practice. By remaining stoic as to your personal assessment of Hi-strung's owners, you cultivate a positive and respect-worthy image of yourself in the investigator's eyes.

Talk to your lawyer

If you have (and you absolutely, positively should have) license defense insurance coverage, your first call should be to your insurer. You should speak to the attorney assigned to your case before responding to any information demands by the licensing board.

It's wise to send copies (or even deliver the originals) of transaction-related records to your lawyer immediately to help eliminate any doubt that you might have altered the records. Record-tampering charges can be far more serious than accusations that you botched an individual procedure or diagnosis. If the licensing board wants records, your attorney is able to determine what it's entitled to and at what stage of the proceeding.

Also, don't try to handle the case yourself. (Shut down that voice in your head saying, “Oh, I'll look guilty if I get all lawyered up … ”) These attorneys are experienced in letting you know what to say and to whom-use the advice you are paying for. If you have no license defense insurance, call the AVMA PLIT regardless. It may be helpful in finding the names of several knowledgeable lawyers from who you can pick.

But remember: If you only have standard malpractice coverage, you'll be paying your attorney by the hour, so be succinct and responsive in your dealings with counsel. It is not cost-effective to use your attorney for emotional handholding-psychologists are cheaper and bartenders are free.

Be the consummate professional

When you show up at the licensing board hearing-or one of the several board hearings, as they are frequently adjourned, continued, rescheduled, tabled to permit collection of additional evidence, snowed out, flooded, whatever-it is imperative that you behave with maximum professionalism. Stow all your annoyance, arrogance, irritation and thoughts of lost income attributable to the hearing.

You must come across as consummately sensible, focused and clear-minded. Refrain from using any of the buzzwords likely dancing in your head such as “witch hunt,” “victimized,” “politically motivated,” “persecution” and “double standard.” These words are inflammatory and have no place in a licensing board hearing.

Your lawyer will likely school you on how to approach questions posed by the board, but he or she can only help control your words, not their delivery. If you're fielding a question you feel implies presumed fault, answer in a way that explains the circumstances better than the way the question was posed or phrased. And certainly don't preface your responses with a huge sigh or roll your eyes. (Trust me, it happens.)

There's no doubt that a state investigation is painful, but this advice is like your very own emotional Elizabethan collar-it's uncomfortable, but it's not as painful as chewing out your own stitches.

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at info@veterinarylaw.com. Dr. Allen serves on DVM Newsmagazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

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