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The most common complaint triggers in veterinary practices (and how to avoid them)

24 Mar 2021 | Claire Neall


Receiving complaints can be very stressful for team members, so #GoodWorkplaces naturally want to find ways to prevent them. In this blog, Claire Neall, Mediation Manager at the Veterinary Client Mediation Service, explores some common elements of complaints they receive, and advice for how practices could avoid them.

The most common complaint triggers in veterinary practices (and how to avoid them) Image

Some complaint situations feel like they emerge out of nowhere, and others can feel like the outcome is inevitable. Through mediation, it is clear that when veterinary practices find themselves involved in a dispute, it isn’t because they intentionally disappointed a client. When you look at complaints through an impartial lens, it is apparent that many are triggered by a misunderstanding or where communication wasn’t clear enough. Ultimately, it is these elements which lead to complaints rather than things like poor management and service. In this blog, we’ll explore five of the most common elements referred to by clients in complaints, giving veterinary practices solutions to help change course and prevent that escalation:

1. “Not taking the time to discuss procedures and plans with me”

At the heart of many customer complaints is the feeling that the pet owner was not adequately consulted or heard. More specifically, there are many instances where the clinical decisions made were correct and entirely appropriate, but the client does not understand this course of action or the reasoning behind the decision.  Notes will simply record ‘discussed with client’. The client will not have considered the interaction to be a discussion and their perspective will be very different. Occasionally, clients have preconceived ideas regarding certain procedures and will be concerned that they were carried out without a thorough consultation. To avoid this happening, it is vital that practices clearly communicate their plans and be attuned to changes in the client’s tone or manner which indicate any concerns. These can then be addressed with clients before carrying out clinical procedures, and will be far quicker than managing those concerns after the event

2. “Assuming I knew what was happening”

‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ starts the Alexander Pope poem. This could have been written about the interaction between vet and pet owners. Whilst it seems like a dream for all clients to possess a strong understanding of veterinary procedures, assumptions about knowledge can lead to a conflict further down the road. Disregarding a client’s knowledge is a quick way to create distance and start to dissolve the trust within the relationship. Equally, assuming that a client understands why something needs to be done, or what is being done, is just as problematic. The reality is that most pet owners are not fluent in terminology and won’t intuitively understand why decisions are being made. Finding a way to explain things in simple accessible terms, and consequently opening up a conversation to allow clients to ask questions, will naturally avoid laying the foundations for a dispute. To mitigate this risk, veterinary practices should make it part of their culture to create an adult conversation where the team can be confident that the client clearly understands what is happening from the outset of their contact as well as the consultation and delivery of the veterinary care.

3. “I wasn’t expecting that” - setting realistic expectations

This goes on from the understanding and communication element. Checking that client expectations meet reality, and having open conversations much earlier on will help to re-route situations which could lead to disputes further down the road. In other words, by avoiding or overlooking whether clients understand prognosis and the limitations of diagnostic tests, veterinary practices risk unintentionally disappointing their clients. If a conversation around the risks and limitations associated with the procedures their pet is undergoing can be focused on the particular animal, and also establishing the expectations of the client, then it can be both effective and time efficient overall.

4. Not providing sufficient or accessible information

When it comes to clinical procedures, each client will have their own ‘information need’. Some will want to know as much as they possibly can about the benefits as well as the risks that are involved with them. Whilst consultations with vets can help to provide clarity, clients will, more than ever, do a bit of further research. If a veterinary practice can guide clients towards trusted and reputable resources, whether on their website or in the form of leaflets, they can create an open and collaborative relationship with clients. Importantly, it helps to manage the situation where clients will conduct their own research and obtain information from unreliable sources. This can exacerbate fears and increase confusion about the decisions being made. The best way to avoid this from happening is to make it easy for clients to obtain as much information as they would like, and for this information to be accessible, too. A fantastic way to do this is to provide a web page full of links on the practice website that lead clients to useful resources.

5. "Not properly explaining Covid-19 restrictions"

For just over a year now, the way that veterinary practices interact with clients and carry out clinical procedures has changed. Due to social distancing measures, many practices cannot have clients present in the way they once were. Naturally, this can cause some distress where clients are not able to be with their animals as they receive care or undergo certain procedures. As restrictions lift, access may become easier in those practices which have not been able to allow clients back into the premises.  Where restrictions remain in place, ask the practice team to walk through the interaction from the client’s point of view. Look for points of confusion or uncertainty so these can be explained. Making assumptions that a client will know what to expect or what will happen when they hand over their pet leaves room for doubt and anxiety. This can hamper the vital trust and engagement needed between practice and owner. Given the challenges faced by both owners and practice teams, doing all we can to head off additional pressures can keep both parties calmer, and better able to communicate.  These will all help to achieve that u-turn in a situation which looks like it will build and build, and mean that a complaint is not a foregone conclusion. By listening to and considering the situation from the other’s point of view, these barriers can come down and maybe even create a better relationship going forward. 

There will always be situations which do seem unresolvable within the team, and when the complaint disputes do emerge, the Veterinary Client Mediation Service (VCMS) is on hand to help. The service is funded by the RCVS. Complaints are referred to the VCMS by both clients and by practices, and uses a proven and holistic mediation method to successfully de-escalate and resolve disputes in a way that is satisfactory to both clients and practices. To find out more, visit the VCMS website today.


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