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Learn to deal with mistakes well
  1. Suzanne Jarvis

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Everyone makes mistakes. And a truly honest mistake rather than a wilful decision to do wrong is, surely, forgivable.

But the outcome of some mistakes made in practice can be serious – and even fatal – so it is understandable that vets and vet nurses find making mistakes stressful.

A huge element of recovering from mistakes – both for those who make them and those affected by them – is how they are put right.

Two sessions at conferences last month highlighted the most crucial component if a mistake is made: honesty.

A talk about avoiding pitfalls in practice given by the Veterinary Defence Society (VDS) at the London Vet Show and a discussion forum on professional dilemmas at the recent VetsNow conference examined how admitting a mistake can be daunting and hard. But they concluded that taking responsibility and owning up to what has gone wrong is the first step to recovering the situation.

The issue was explored by the VDS through case studies – which were all based on true cases its claims team had dealt with. Some of these showed there can be instances where you might not initially realise a mistake has been made. But at the moment you do, it’s best to hold your hand up.

The results from a recent Everyday Ethics poll that we ran in In Practice (November 2018, p 423) on giving an accidental, and ‘inconsequential’ overdose showed that the majority of vets would fess up. However, about a quarter of respondents wouldn’t or possibly wouldn’t admit to it. This group are putting themselves under undue pressure, because as David Williams, who answered the dilemma, says for your own mental health ‘it is important to come clean’.

Being honest also extends to other colleagues in practice. For the vets and nurses discussing the cases at the VetsNow conference, they overwhelmingly favoured an approach where they were given all the facts surrounding the case before helping the vet or nurse who made the mistake to resolve it. Even if it was a serious error, they would choose this route first before considering taking stronger action, such as reporting them to the RCVS.

Who you admit it to will depend on the situation. If still with the client on farm or in the consulting room, it might be that explaining then and there will rescue the situation almost immediately. If you take this approach, make sure you listen to any concerns the client has, make good notes on what has happened and try and identify how to resolve the problem.

Then within the practice – don’t keep it to yourself. Tell colleagues and the boss. It is good practice to have a forum where learning can be shared with the whole team. Hopefully your practice has a good set-up to support you and allow mistakes to be discussed with the team.

Identify what went wrong and why

And that brings us to the next step – learn from your mistake. Identify what went wrong and why. Often a solution can be straightforward. It could, for example, be as simple as separating similar looking drugs in the pharmacy so they are not confused.

Identifying this ‘why’ leads to the final step in the process – don’t repeat the mistake. If you put a new procedure in place as a result of an error, let clients know, especially the one whose animal started the process. Many clients respond well to knowing efforts have been made to improve things, and, strange as it might seem, it can be a good bonding experience to show them you take these matters seriously.

No one wants to be on the receiving end of a complaint to the RCVS – around 3 to 4 per cent of UK practising vets have a complaint made against them to the college each year. But your likelihood of having a complaint made in the first place is greatly reduced if you deal with mistakes well.

You will make mistakes, but admit it, learn from it and don’t repeat it is a mantra that serves everyone well.

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