Areas of concern
In an earlier era, concerns expressed by an associate veterinarian, staff member or per diem doctor who hinted at controlled
drug improprieties might have been met with a polite "none of your business," and that'd be the end of it. Today, newly developed
legal theories of vicarious civil and criminal liability can ensnare even the innocent. Workers with no malicious intent can
become involved in unwelcome investigation-related hassles—even implications of alleged complicity with unprofessional or
illegal activity of coworkers.
Those most at risk, of course, are people who hold professional licenses: veterinarians and credentialed technicians. Due
to their higher level of training in the field, licensees may be held to a higher standard of care in instances where the
diversion or abuse of addictive medication is, or "should have been," apparent in the workplace.
Also at increased risk is the practice owner, whether a veterinarian or, in places where it is legally permitted, a layperson
or corporation. If negligence or inattention to reasonable substance management guidelines results in the harm or death of
an employee or another person through tolerated controlled substance diversion, a business or its ownership may have to answer
for damages, face criminal sanctions or possibly both.
Potential workplace misconduct is a touchy and perilous subject. This is especially the case for nonveterinarian employees
at a clinic. For example, if a technician or receptionist feels compelled to alert the boss to concerns that controlled substance
abuse may be going on, her job might be placed in jeopardy. The risk is especially great if the boss is either personally
involved in illegal behavior or shielding an employee who is.
But doctors in the practice are at risk too. There are student loans to repay and reputations to be protected—becoming known
in the professional community as a scheduled-drug Buttinsky may not be the best way to hold onto or obtain a new associate
position. The same goes for per diem or relief veterinarians. Those who raise too much of a stink about drug inventory anomalies
may scare off future relief clients. Potential customers might start to wonder whether they want a whistle-blower filling
in for them while they're away on vacation or attending a conference.
So other than making a huge issue at work about sloppy controlled substance logs and potentially incurring the wrath of higher-ups,
what can the innocent licensee or other veterinary clinic employee do to protect herself from getting caught up in workplace
drug woes? One or more of these ideas might be worthy of consideration:
> Licensees can mention in an offhanded way to management that they attended a professional continuing education class about
drug inventories and felt it was appropriate to mention that some "firming up" might be needed to bring the clinic into compliance.
Providing a written list of specific ideas is a good idea as well. (Keep a copy to show investigators if a certain something
eventually hits the fan.)
> Licensees who spot recordkeeping flaws may want to ask upper management if it'd be possible to have a second team member
shadow them when monthly inventories of scheduled substances are conducted. This helps eliminate the licensee—usually a technician—from
being included in a list of suspects should drugs be found missing during a site visit by state or federal inspectors.
> Written prescriptions should be photocopied twice—one copy should be kept in the medical record and the other kept in a
chronologically catalogued binder or other permanent record. Remember that prescription mistakes happen all the time and these
copies are key to protecting the prescription writer and the clinic from liability for pharmacist error.
> Veterinarians who witness something they're concerned about may want to ask a second person to assist them when taking controlled
substances out of inventory for a procedure that requires anesthesia or when dispensing medications to a client. If that request
is routinely made, it's a signal to management that the staff or relief veterinarian is nervous about a lax existing protocol
or wants to distance himself or herself from something suspicious.
> Veterinarians always have the option of prescribing all scheduled drugs rather than dispensing them.
So while no one's immune from the implications of a drug abuse debacle in veterinary practice, just a little bit of prudence
and watchfulness can be your best friend—and ultimately protect the business.
Dr. Christopher Allen
is president of Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607)
754-1510 or e-mail