The VHMA Files: Simple steps to avoid legal storms in veterinary practice

Help avoid lawsuits by practicing good communication.
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Jan 01, 2014

It's a startling statistic: Many small businesses can expect to face a major lawsuit during the first five years of business. But by improving communication and record-keeping, Douglas Jack, LLB, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, says you can minimize your practice's liability.

Good communication is essential

According to professional risk management studies, roughly 75 percent of lawsuits stem from communication issues. Set a good example to promote team communication by actively listening and responding and providing opportunities for team members to be heard. Team members who experience respectful communication may apply these techniques with clients. Each team member should meet these basic expectations:

> Make sure clients and patients are heard.

> Encourage client conversations by asking and answering questions and discussing fears and expectations openly and freely. It's also important for managers to follow up with team members to ensure they're responding to clients' concerns.

> Refine team members' skills through training programs and offer feedback on the team's performance so team members can evaluate whether they're effective with clients.

On the record

The AVMA's Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics state that a veterinarian must maintain records once a veterinarian-client-patient relationship has been formed. Better records also help the practice support its actions in a legal challenge. Consider these tips to streamline record-keeping:

> Use stamps, stick-on exam labels and preprinted medical record forms to minimize the repetitious part of record-keeping.

> Use customized or standard medical abbreviations. Add a list of abbreviations you will use to the employee manual and be sure the entire team knows the abbreviations.

> Make record-keeping the responsibility of every team member, and offer training in the practice's record-keeping protocol. Every encounter with a patient should be recorded and each entry initialed in the treatment notes.

> Preprinted or computerized forms can make record-keeping less time-consuming.

While excellent records can be a great resource during a lawsuit, the real value is to provide patients the best care. Well-maintained files offer a reminder of the patient's issues and treatment.

Implications for practice

Like it or not, litigation is the cost of doing business. With a commitment to communication and documenting all patient and client interactions, you can improve relationships with clients and reduce your liability exposure. Visit http://dvm360.com/VHMA for a handout with more team tips.

Christine Shupe, CAE, is the executive director of the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association. The association is dedicated to serving professionals in veterinary management through education, certification and networking.