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Addressing complaints

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IT might be relatively small scale, but a trial of an alternative disputes resolution process which started at the RCVS this week could have a significant impact on the way complaints about the services provided by veterinary surgeons are dealt with in the future. A long-standing issue for the College, and a source of frustration for dissatisfied members of the public, is that its statutory powers for dealing with complaints are limited to dealing with cases of serious professional conduct and fitness to practise. This means that a large proportion of less serious, but potentially legitimate, concerns remain unresolved, which can be unsatisfactory from the point of view of the complainant and the vet(s) concerned. The aim of the trial is to see whether it might be possible to find a way of resolving such disputes, which can work to the satisfaction of everyone involved.

The thinking behind the trial was outlined in a presentation by the RCVS at the BSAVA congress in April (VR, April 19, 2014, vol 174, pp 392-393) and in a paper discussed by the RCVS Council in June (VR, June 21, 2104, vol 174, p 625). As the RCVS Council paper explained, ‘The College has been criticised over the years for failing to help consumers of veterinary services who are unhappy with the services they have received. [Its] statutory jurisdiction only extends to dealing with serious professional misconduct; and even if a complaint from a client leads to professional conduct proceedings, that will not of itself help the complainant.’ The regulators of the human health professions were also limited by their statutory jurisdiction and, as for the veterinary profession, their mainstream role did not extend to consumer complaints which raised no issues of fitness to practise. However, in the human medical field, these complaints would generally be dealt with under NHS arrangements. ‘By contrast,’ the RCVS Council paper pointed out, ‘veterinary clients who are not happy with the service they have received are on their own unless they are prepared to spend money on legal proceedings, arbitration or mediation.’

The paper also referred to a submission from Defra to an inquiry into the Veterinary Surgeons Act undertaken by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in 2008 (VR, May 17, 2008, vol 162, pp 633, 634). This remarked: ‘. . . concentrating only on instances where a veterinary surgeon is guilty of “disgraceful conduct” (whatever that is taken to mean), means that the Disciplinary Committee is limited to considering a small number of the most serious types of complaint. The overwhelming majority of complaints received by the RCVS are sifted out at some point during the process. Allowing such a large number of complaints each year to be dismissed in this way inevitably harms the reputation of the veterinary profession.’

The consumer dispute resolution service now being trialled by the RCVS will be administered by Ombudsman Services, an independent, not-for-profit company based in Warrington. The trial will run for six months and be limited to up to 150 complaints received by the RCVS regarding the treatment of small animals. Participation will be voluntary and free to users. Appropriate concerns will be identified by the Professional Conduct department at the RCVS, which will then seek the consent of both the veterinary surgeon and the person raising the complaint before referring it to Ombudsman Services. In most cases, says the College, concerns referred to the trial will have no arguable case for serious professional misconduct.

Ombudsman Services will then investigate the circumstances of the concern with the help of three veterinary advisers who will give guidance on clinical and other veterinary matters. Decisions, the College explains, will be reached by a process of conciliation rather than arbitration, and recommendations will be made that either party can accept or not. Recommendations might include financial accommodation up to the small claims court limit of £10,000 (the average recommendation made by Ombudsman Services is around £100), the issuing of an apology or some other practical action to remedy the situation.

The trial will be monitored and assessed by a panel made up of representatives of the BVA and the Veterinary Defence Society, as well as a consumer representative. The aim will be to provide a potential framework for a fully developed scheme to help fill what might be seen as a gap in the profession's arrangements for dealing with complaints. Questions to be addressed in the trial include what proportion of cases can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion through conciliation alone; what types of cases can be satisfactorily resolved; and whether complainants feel they have been helped. It also aims to find out whether most veterinary surgeons are likely to cooperate with the process, how quickly cases can be resolved, and whether the operation of the scheme through a third party is helpful. The results will be presented at a meeting of the RCVS Council in June next year, when consideration will be given to developing a scheme on a permanent basis.

Whether and how the scheme will be taken forward will depend on the outcome of the trial, which can be seen as another step in the efforts being made to modernise the RCVS's regulatory activities while working under a Veterinary Surgeons Act which is nearly 50 years old. Last year, it updated its disciplinary structure after Parliament approved a Legislative Reform Order amending the Act (VR, February 2, 2013, vol 172, p 112) and it has since taken steps to speed up its processes and improve communication when handling complaints (VR, August 16/23, 2014, vol 175, p 164). In July this year, members of the College approved a new Royal Charter which, if approved by the Privy Council, should, among other things, help put the regulation of veterinary nurses on a firmer footing (VR, August 9, 2014, vol 175, p 138).

For all the effort necessarily devoted to disciplinary processes, the number of complaints received by the College is, compared with the huge number of daily interactions between vets and members of the public, relatively small (about 800 a year). The number resulting in disciplinary action is smaller still. Unresolved complaints, as well as potentially being damaging to the profession's reputation, can be frustrating for all concerned. If a practical way can be found of resolving such disputes through conciliation, that can only be to the good.

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