Holding Vets Accountable
By J. Diane Parrish, Esq.
Dec 1, 2003 - 10:37:00 AM

UNITED STATES—Would you let a beloved companion animal be operated on by a vet that's not accountable to anyone?

Surprise, surprise.   You don’t have a choice.

That’s because the California Veterinary Medical Board, the state agency charged with protecting the public and its animals from veterinarians, is in my opinion not doing its job. The board is supposed to hold vets
Photo by Brittany Crouse
accountable when they violate the rules and regulations governing the practice of veterinary medicine, but it rarely does.  The board’s failure to create and maintain accountability by imposing meaningful penalties exposes our four-footed friends to avoidable and unnecessary pain, suffering and death.

An example, and a true story (except for the names):

Jody got Fido from the pound when he was just a pup.  They became best friends and shared life for many years.   Jody took Fido to veterinarian Smith for shots and check-ups regularly.  Fido, being of mixed parentage, was a healthy little guy, but when he turned 11, vet Smith diagnosed a heart problem.  At his next his check-up, the vet noticed Fido had a broken tooth.

He recommended root canal surgery!!!

“Fido is in pain, “ he told Jody, knowingly.

“Wouldn’t it be simpler to just extract it,” Jody wondered aloud.

“Not a good idea,” said the vet.  “He’d have trouble chewing his food.  You wouldn’t want that now, would you?”

“Of course not,” she said as she signed a fee “estimate” of $700.

Jody dropped Fido off early the next morning.  Each time she called to see if he was ready to come home, she was told he’d be ready “in a little while.” Finally, at 6:30, Jody was told the vet hadn’t started yet.  Jody got nervous and decided to pick him up. He hadn’t eaten or had water since the night before, and he needed to take his heart medicine.  When she arrived, the vet told Jody that Fido was dead.   That broke Jody’s heart.  And, many years later, it’s still broken.

Hoping to save others the same sad experience, Jody filed a complaint with the Veterinary Medical Board.  After reviewing the records, they told her there was “insufficient evidence” of a violation even though the records included a mountain of evidence proving his negligence, incompetence and dishonesty.  He did an unnecessary and risky procedure that he wasn’t trained to do; he didn’t do a pre-op exam to see if Fido could survive the surgery in light of his advanced years and known heart condition; he didn’t even monitor Fido’s heart during the surgery; he kept Fido under anesthesia for over 5 hours for a procedure that takes 45 minutes; and then he even altered the medical records—twice—in an attempt to conceal his willful and egregious wrongdoing.  If this evidence is not “sufficient,” what is? How many other complaints like Jody’s has the Board rejected permitting incompetent and careless vets to practice with impunity? Jody’s case is not an isolated incident.  Last year the board closed over 85% of complaints received against veterinarians.

If you look at the Veterinary Medical Board’s website, you’ll notice a section called “Enforcement,” and within that section there’s a sub-section called “Disciplinary Action.”  It's listed by year, rather than by vet, so it’s not very consumer friendly.  Nevertheless, when you check each year, and see that the vet you’re interested in is NOT listed, you’ll likely conclude that he or she hasn’t done anything wrong, or at least hasn’t been caught. And then you might conclude that he or she, not having been “disciplined,” is a perfectly safe doctor for your four-legged friend.

Don’t because you’ll be drawing the wrong conclusion.

The board has its own special vocabulary when it comes to revealing veterinarians’ histories.  “Discipline” refers only to cases the board has referred to the Attorney General’s Office.  It does not include citations and fines and warnings.  And the website doesn’t disclose those at all!  The board’s website does not tell you which vets have been cited for violations of the law (unless they referred the matter to the AG’s Office), and the Board surely doesn’t reveal what it knows about vet Smith and others like him.

Ignoring complaints like Jody’s isn’t the only problem.  When the board does decide there’s “sufficient evidence,” it can take years before anything happens.  One case, involving a vet that sees over 30,000 animals each year, has been slogging through the board's “enforcement system” since at least 1998.  And even though the vet has already been found guilty by a judge, he continues in practice, with no restrictions whatsoever, because he filed an appeal.  The board could protect the public and its animals by getting the vet’s license suspended in the interim, but it hasn’t and it won’t.  The board’s decision to do nothing about a well-known risk is unacceptable.

The only way we and our animals can be protected is if the board stops sweeping complaints under the rug and starts imposing predictable and meaningful consequences.  There is a way that you can help now.

The board’s performance is reviewed every few years by the State Legislature in a process known as “Sunset Review.”  The process requires the board to submit a report to the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee. The committee reviews the report and then holds hearings.   The board won’t be looked again for years, so this is your chance to SPEAK!  

If you have been privileged to share your life with a beloved companion animal, and you agree that our animals are not safe until vets are held accountable for their wrongdoings, please say so by emailing your comments, short or long, to Robin Hartley, consultant to the Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee consultant at: robin.hartley@sen.ca.gov

The materials contained in Speak! are intended for general information and should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice or opinion. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel concerning particular situations and specific legal questions.

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