Dealing with Complaints

Dealing with Complaints

Have you found yourself on the receiving end of a complaint to your practice, or are you responsible for dealing with complaints? If not, do you live in fear of the day your first complaint arises?  Fear not!  Despite our increasingly demanding and litigious client base, the vast majority of complaints are not upheld, or are resolved in house.  However, the process can be incredibly stressful and time consuming, and often sleep depriving.  This can adversely affect both mental and physical health, so getting help and advice early on and getting things in perspective is vital to make the process as painless as possible.  Talk to friends, colleagues, or:

GET INSURED – professional indemnity insurance is vital.  A lot of practices will insure their assistants; double check this in your contract.  Veterinary Defence Society is run by vets and is a good place to start, though other providers are available.

Have you made an error?  Here are some of our tips:

  • You WILL make mistakes because you are human.  Some of these will regrettably adversely affect morbidity, even mortality in your patients.  Forgive yourself!  We’ve all done it, so don’t beat yourself up.  Dwelling on mistakes (ruminating) or feeling guilty is often a counterproductive emotion.  Learn from the experience (speak to a specialist/colleague to understand what went wrong and why), put measures in place to make it less likely to happen again (e.g. double check before giving a medicine; do some CPD in the relevant area…) and move on as a better, more experienced clinician. And let go of the guilt!
  • Once you know you have made a mistake, own up to a senior colleague and/or your insurers before speaking to the client if possible – getting advice on how to handle the client is vitally important in the early stages and can reduce the likelihood of a resultant complaint
  • When the complaint comes BE HONEST.  If you’re in a fluster and your survival instinct kicks in you may find an overwhelming desire to shift the blame. STOP, take 5 minutes, have a cuppa, collect your thoughts and speak the truth.  Again, seek advice from your insurers and /or trusted advisor.


If the complaint comes it is usually one of five ways:

1. Complaints to your Practice:

Most practices will have a system for dealing with the majority of complaints raised in house.  Your employers are likely to approach you to inform you a complaint has been received and ask for your response. (see above tips)


2. Vet Client Mediation Service

The Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) is a service for veterinary clients and practices.  It is a voluntary, independent and free mediation service for clients whose animals have received veterinary care and for the veterinary professionals providing that care. Using the process of mediation, VCMS offer help and guidance to resolve complaints in a fair, cost efficient manner that is unbiased and non-judgemental. VCMS works with both parties to try and reach a solution that is acceptable to both the client and veterinary professional. The service is funded by the RCVS.

All veterinary practices will have their own complaints procedures to deal with concerns raised by clients. Where a complaint cannot be resolved within the practice, either party can refer the complaint to the VCMS. We will obtain all details of the concern and mediate with both parties to assist in finding a resolution.  The service is provided by Nockolds Solicitors. This means it is completely impartial and each complaint is considered in a fair, timely and efficient way so that the veterinary professional and client can move on.


3. RCVS complaints procedure

Information on the complaints process can be found here. We summarise the process below.

Stage 1Assessment and investigation – a Case Examiner is assigned to gather information from you, and the complainant.  Copies of what you supply to the RCVS may be forwarded to the complainant to see if they agree with what you have said.  This may be done by telephone for speed, but you can request correspondence is done in writing if you want to collect your thoughts and/or gain advice from your professional indemnity insurer and/or legal advisor.  Additional information may be gathered e.g. from your colleagues in practice.  A group of 3 case examiners then review the case in private.  80% of cases are resolved at this point, either with no further action, or recommendations to the veterinary surgeon.  Within approx <3months

Stage 2: Preliminary Investigation Committee – the 20% of cases that make it to this point.  The information is reviewed, additional information may be gathered.  If there is a genuine concern the vet’s conduct could affect his/her fitness to practice the matter is referred to stage 3.  If not, the case is either closed, or held open for 2 years.  Within approx <9months

Stage 3: Disciplinary Committee – a small percentage of cases make it this far.  A public hearing (similar to a courtroom) takes place to decide if the vet is guilty of serious professional misconduct.  Witnesses may be called to give evidence.  If found guilty, the vet may be given a formal reprimand, suspended for up to two years, or struck off.  The case can be held open for up to 2 years.  Within approx <12months

You can see the results of the Disciplinary Committees findings for the last 3 years here

If you are having / have had experience of this procedure, we’d love to hear from you – please contact us if you would be willing to write an anonymous blog of your experiences to provide information to colleagues who may be at the start of the process and trembling in their boots!


4. Social media

This relatively new forum for complaining is impossible to regulate.  In our age of social media it is inevitable that there is a risk of being exposed by a disgruntled client.  When this is on a practice page it is possible to moderate the content.  When it is on a user’s private page it is more complicated; the issue of whether or not to respond, and how, is a complex one.  Contact Us if you have any experience of this, especially where you reached a successful conclusion.

This book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed‘ by  Jon Ronson explores the origins and re-emergence of public shaming, especially on social media.  It may help you gain understanding and perspective if you’ve been on the receiving end


5. The Media

Certain papers or program makers are too quick to take a ‘shocking’ complaint from a member of the public as being the whole truth, and publish click-bait stories.  Where facts are not checked with a practice prior to publication this is bad journalism and you have every right to contact the publication to give your side of the story and ask for an apology or retraction.

Media training can be helpful prior to dealing with journalists. Be careful not to turn it into a blame game of ‘he said, she said’ and be cautioned that nothing is truly ‘off record’ when it comes to dealing with the media. However, the apologies are often less interesting than the initial headlines. It may still be worth pursuing as you can share retractions through your own online channels with your clients and staff.

Often the best response is to counter negative stories with positive news stories and invite journalists to talk to you about the good news cases in your practice.