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Gaining insights on animal owner complaints
The RCVS-funded Veterinary Client Mediation Service was set up last year following a one-year trial and is an alternative dispute resolution provider that seeks to resolve complaints made by animal owners about individual veterinary practitioners or veterinary practices that do not meet our threshold for serious professional misconduct.
The free, voluntary service is run by Nockolds Solicitors aims to resolve disputes through mediation which includes talking to and negotiating with both parties to find an optimal outcome that all can accept.
With the publication of the Veterinary Client Mediation Service’s annual report this month, Jennie Jones (pictured below right), a partner at Nockolds who runs the service on behalf of the RCVS, shares some of the key insights into veterinary complaints and how to resolve them that the service has gained over the past 12 months.
This year the VCMS has been busier than ever - we put this down to more owners and practices increasingly knowing about what we do and how mediation can help when a complaint can’t be resolved within the practice and doesn’t meet the RCVS complaint threshold.
The fact that we are dealing with an increasing amount of cases gives us an excellent opportunity to identify some of the key trends in this area and so complement the existing RCVS learning and advice to the profession on how they might avoid complaints and how to resolve them when they do arise.
What type of complaints are referred to the VCMS?
Just as you would expect, in the majority of cases the owner is unhappy with the care and service provided. The VCMS analyses the nature of complaints, for example, we determine if the owner complaining about the veterinary care provided, the service received or what they were charged for the service. Deeper analysis shows that almost all complaints refer to a problem with communication in one form or another. Mediation discussions often reveal the difference between what has been said, and what has been understood.
The VCMS has a framework which we follow to ensure complaint mediations progress as swiftly and effectively as possible. Here is an overview of what the VCMS does at each stage, and the questions we will explore with owners and practices:
What happens during the mediation process?
Mediation is about having a conversation. The mediator will not judge or take sides. They will explore the complaint with each party in turn. They may ask some challenging questions to help each party to understand why the complaint is continuing and the barriers that may have prevented a resolution before. We do not impose a resolution on either parties and we do not make any judgements or findings.
The mediator may pose some questions to help both parties reflect on the potential escalation if the complaint does not conclude in mediation, but the decision on whether to make or accept any proposal rests with the owner and practice involved.
We may bring an independent perspective, an independent ear, and listen for the clues in how to unlock the complaint and find a resolution.
How do practices feel after the mediation?
We ask for feedback after every mediation as it is important that the service is trusted and maintains impartiality. Feedback during 2018 was very encouraging!
- On average 92% of respondees would use the VCMS again and would recommend to others
- 94% were satisfied with the process of the mediation
- 98% found the VCMS Team helpful & efficient
- 88% found the mediation productive
- 94% felt the VCMS understood their concerns
- 84% were satisfied with the outcome
- 81% felt the process was fair
Common questions and comments that the VCMS receives from practices when we first contact them about the fact a complaint has been submitted for mediation include:
- We have already responded to the complaint so what more can mediation achieve?
- The situation is difficult and our practice team are worried about discussing the complaint with them
- We have already spent so much time trying to resolve this complaint!
- We don’t feel like we have done anything wrong clinically, so why should we mediate?
- This is all about fee avoidance, so should we delay debt recovery with mediation?
However, by the end of the mediation process, we generally find that, as outlined previously, most practices were happy they engaged with the process and with the outcomes.
What can mediation achieve?
Finally, what kind of resolutions are achieved? We work to resolve each individual issue in a unique and fair manner, recognising that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to complaints. The most common sorts of resolutions that we achieve are:
- Refund of fees or waiving of fees on a goodwill basis - on average these are £230, although the most common range is between £75 and £100, with a few higher value/equine related complaints accounting for the high average;
- Getting the practice to acknowledge an owner’s complaint, the impact of events and, if appropriate, an apology;
- Clarity in communication to resolve any misunderstanding;
- Charity donation;
- Average refund of waiver;
- Further explanations;
- Protocol reviews;
- Further training for the practice team;
- In resolving the owner’s complaint, the VCMS will also explore the issue of any outstanding fees to ensure that all issues between the owner and practice are resolved, avoiding future or ongoing conflict - so far in 2019, £22,000 in outstanding fees have been included as part of the mediated resolution;
- Reassurance and helping owners’ accept and come to terms with what has happened.