It's simply a matter of cause and effect:
With the number of client complaints on the rise, more veterinarians sooner or later will have to answer to their state regulatory
- When that happens, what's the procedure?
- Does the board definitively act on every complaint?
- What are the possible outcomes?
Veterinarians new to the procedure might ask those and similar questions, so DVM Newsmagazine put them to an expert — Dale J. Atkinson, an Evanston, Ill., attorney experienced in professional licensure and state regulatory-association
law. Atkinson serves as legal counsel for the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) and similar groups representing
other professions. He regularly trains new members of state veterinary boards.
Dale J. Atkinson
Atkinson outlined — in nine steps — the anatomy of a typical state-board procedure, starting with the filing of a complaint
and continuing through investigation, formal hearing and resolution.
Some of the steps may vary slightly from state to state, Atkinson says, but essentially this is how the process works:
Step 1 A COMPLAINT IS FILED
Any consumer may file a complaint concerning veterinary services with the regulatory board in the state where an alleged wrong
Step 2 INITIAL EVALUATION
The board's administrative staff weighs the complaint's validity. Is it signed or is it anonymous? Some states won't process
an unsigned complaint, so the issue may end there. Others will pursue anonymous charges if they are deemed serious enough
(especially if there are two or more similar complaints against the same DVM). Does the complaint come under the board's jurisdiction
as defined in the practice act? A simple dispute over a fee, for instance, may not, and the staff will send the complainant
a letter saying so.
The board likely will pursue charges of malpractice or malfeasance (which may include poor record-keeping, a common complaint
in recent statistics). Any unprofessional conduct, practicing while incapacitated or impaired, conviction of a felony, alcohol
or other substance abuse, acts of moral turpitude and misrepresentation or fraud are among grounds for disciplinary action.
Step 3 DECIDING WHETHER TO ACT
Even if a complaint seems to fall under its jurisdiction, the board can't take on every case because of limited manpower.
It must look at the severity and decide early on whether to dedicate the necessary time and resources. Usually a subcommittee
of board members and administrative staff, along with an assistant attorney general, meets to decide whether to begin an investigation
— investigators may be state employees or outside investigators under contract — and build a prosecution. Any egregious charge
likely will be pursued. Minor issues might be handled with a letter to the licensee.
Step 4 NOTIFYING LICENSEE OF FORMAL CHARGE
If the subcommittee decides to pursue the case, the board files a formal charge and notifies the DVM licensee, citing the
portion of the practice statute allegedly violated and giving the licensee opportunity to answer, hire an attorney and prepare
a defense against an administrative prosecution.
Step 5 POTENTIAL SETTLEMENT
The initial goal is to reach a settlement without going into a formal hearing. Among various options, the board could call
for a period of probation, impose a fine, a temporary or permanent suspension of license or some combination of these. The
penalty is negotiated with the licensee and his or her counsel. If settled in that way, a consent agreement is filed and recorded
to end the matter.
At this point, similar to a criminal case, the complaining party has little further to say and, whether happy with the outcome
or not, cannot influence the board's action, other than possibly to testify should a formal hearing takes place.