5 types of potentially litigious veterinary clients

5 types of potentially litigious veterinary clients

If you see them coming, be concerned — and ask them to seek veterinary care elsewhere
Sep 01, 2010

Throughout my career as a practice owner, I have been hesitant to suggest that clients look elsewhere for veterinary services. Particularly in my early years, I never wanted to give up a client, and this policy usually served me well. However, now that I'm a little older and wiser, I've learned that there are certain instances in which clients need to be fired — or politely asked to seek veterinary care elsewhere.

When I say this, I don't in any way mean that you, as the practice owner, should give in to every entreaty by an associate or staff member to "Tell that $#%@! to go somewhere else!" All of us want to fire pain-in-the-neck clients from time to time. Most practice annoyances from clients must be tolerated, particularly in the current economy. And while we know that a small percentage of clients create the largest percentage of management problems, we usually put up with a certain number of clunkers.

But this article isn't about clients who are merely irritating. No, some clients are lawsuits waiting to happen. Following are important signs to watch for to be on your guard against troublesome clients who may be more likely to become potential litigants. If you encounter a client exhibiting one or more of these danger signs, I suggest taking an objective look at your relationship with that client and deciding if that relationship is worth continuing.

Sour on specialties

Be concerned when taking on advanced or sophisticated treatments on behalf of clients who express serious dissatisfaction with their previous experience with a specialty practice or university teaching hospital. That is a telling sign of a serious disconnect between client expectations and the reality of medical science.

I'm not talking about unhappiness with the cost or outcome of a procedure at a referral facility. We always hear from clients about how the local veterinary college "was able to put on a new wing after my last visit there" or they "spent $5,000 at the Animal Medical Center and ended up with a dead cat."

No, the clients to worry about are those who, while perhaps unhappy about the cost of a previous referral experience, have specific and pointed issues with the quality of care or treatment rendered to their pets. Be cautious if clients claim that some previous referral visit resulted in a misdiagnosis or the use of an outdated or inappropriate treatment modality or neglect or a deviation from the treatment they read about or saw on the Internet.

Stuck on the details

Be concerned when a client asks you to repeat, with annoying specificity, the medications, surgical techniques or treatment approaches you intend to employ or have employed in working up a case. That often implies that this client is acting out that old chestnut, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." This saying is true and a little knowledge can be dangerous for your reputation and your practice when litigation or state board claims later ensue, initiated by some self-appointed specialist/client. I have found that later legal problems are more likely to develop when clients become deeply involved in the intricacies of the medicine or procedure performed on their pets. If the outcome isn't perfect and the decision of how to treat was open to any subjective opinion whatsoever, something magical happens: The client knew from everything he or she had read that the doctor should have gone the other way on that medication/dosage/protocol/technique. It's not long before that certainty unfolds into legal action.