2017 June - Communication – the key to good outcomes

The Veterinary practitioners code of professional conduct (Code) sets out the basic principles of professional conduct including, informed consent, confidentiality and management of records. The key to meeting these standards is communication.

A veterinarian taking on management of a patient must ensure he or she meets the requirements of the Code. Open, clear and well documented communication with the person responsible for the care of the patient and other colleagues involved in managing the patient will go a long way to ensure the best outcome for the patient and a satisfied client.

A recurring theme in calls and complaints to the Board is a breakdown in communication. This is more likely to occur when multiple veterinarians and/or multiple veterinary practices are involved in case management and especially when communicating with multiple people responsible for the care of your patient. There is a need for extra care and clarity when communicating with new clients who are less likely to be aware of your usual practice policies and procedures.

Under the Code, a veterinary practitioner must, where it is practicable to do so, obtain the informed consent of the person responsible for the care of an animal before providing veterinary services to the animal (clause 7). Although not required by the legislation, the Board strongly recommends the use of written treatment consent forms. It is important to ensure the person responsible for care of your patient is updated regularly about hospitalised cases and the consent is obtained where practicable for any new veterinary services.

Informed consent should also be considered with clause 16 of the Code.  Where it is practicable to do so, a veterinarian must inform the person responsible for the care of the animal of the likely extent and outcome of veterinary services and provide an estimated cost of those services.

Animals regularly need to be transferred to the care of other veterinarians and we have an obligation under the Code to utilise the skills of colleagues where appropriate. This can occur in multi-vet practices at the changeover of a shift, due to rostered days off or holidays. Patients are increasingly transferred to emergency centres for overnight care.

Under the Code (clause 15), a veterinary practitioner must ensure that a detailed record of any consultation, procedure or treatment is made as soon as is practicable. The record must be in sufficient detail to enable another veterinary practitioner to continue the treatment of the animal. In addition, a verbal handover of patients to the veterinary practitioner taking over care can be of great assistance in ensuring continuity of care. The person responsible for the animal should be kept informed of who is caring for their animal.

The Board recommends superintendents have in place clear guidelines to ensure their practice meets the requirements of the Code.  More importantly, guidelines help to provide optimal care for patients and ensure clients are well informed about the likely extent and outcome of the veterinary services.  They can also ensure clients are provided with an estimate of the costs of these services.

Contemporaneous documentation of all communication with colleagues and the person responsible for the care of the animal is extremely useful if complaints ever arise.

A further useful summary of the risks associated with clients seeing multiple veterinarians is available from Guild Insurance.