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“This article is important – please read it!”

03 December 2019, at 9:00am

My psychologist friend would have told me to start with: “This article is highly sensitive – DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER”. I have opted for “This article is important – please read it!” A visit to his house is a journey into these sorts of psychological games. The toilet has no light in it, so visitors need to decide to be bold and pee with the door open to let in light, or be shy and sit in the dark. There is a box with “do not open this box” in red letters on it, and what looks like a fire safety device with the words: “break glass in case of existential crisis”. This is a slight digression but this month’s subject is about complaints and the link to my friend is that recently he was facing an investigation. One of his clients committed suicide and he was the last professional to speak to him before he died. That puts some of our worries into context.

Receiving a complaint is something we have to face at work. It is never pleasant and takes a lot of time to deal with. With ready access to online “advice”, disgruntled clients can quickly work out how to write a very unpleasant and threatening letter to a vet practice. They also can quickly find the route to the RCVS.

If you google “how to complain about a vet” you will find high up on the list an interesting article from Which? magazine which approaches it from the point of view of the Consumer Rights Act. This was a new and unfamiliar way that we could be complained about. I think our practice’s last complaint may have been copied and pasted from some of its text!

We are all familiar and terrified of the RCVS complaints department, and the looming spectre of that has a background effect on the way many vets practise and work. It is not a very healthy mindset, but essential for survival. As an internet search for complaining about vets is skewed towards the RCVS, I imagine that their workload has mushroomed.

The point of this article is to raise awareness of the Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS). This is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service delivered by a company called Nockolds Solicitors. It is funded by the RCVS and is free to clients and vets to use. Their website, vetmediation.co.uk, is very useful. A short quote gives an idea of the service: “In all areas of our society, despite our best efforts, complaints do arise, and the veterinary sector is no different... When you feel your practice has responded fully to a complaint but the client remains dissatisfied, you feel that you have reached an impasse. Clients may seek redress from the RCVS or civil courts. These routes can be ineffective, contentious and disproportionate which can further aggravate the client and have a detrimental impact on the reputation of the veterinary industry.”

Clients can be referred there by a practice, with their consent. The process is detailed fully on their website but is physically done via “shuttle conversations” by the mediators between the client and practice. The two are never on the same line together.

Many clients will not be happy with a meeting at the practice, and some do not want to deal with the practice at all for a complaint and immediately take to the internet and then directly to the RCVS or solicitors. In communication with vets who have been on the receiving end of the RCVS complaints process it would seem that once a complaint has been received, the RCVS does not ask that the client exhausts the practice’s own complaints process first. Most regulators (see for example Ofcom) will insist that the service provider’s own complaints process is exhausted before turning to them. The RCVS seems to take up every complaint straight away without this step. If you can make clients aware of the VCMS at an early opportunity, it may save you that. I can also recommend the VDS handout on complaints process as a framework for dealing with complaints.

Every sector has complaints and I think it helps to remember that. As vets we are not singled out. Teachers are vulnerable to spurious allegations from pupils and doctors from patients with ambulance-chasing lawyers looking for very high financial rewards. Everyone – from architects to waitresses – has to deal with complaints. My daughter has a waitressing job and, at the age of 15, was the only member of staff who a particularly charming table of guests could not reduce to tears with their constant complaining.

Remember, it is (nearly always) not you; it’s them. Once they’ve pressed “send” on their stroppy email they will be off to a restaurant to make waitresses cry. Don’t let them grind you down.