The Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners received a record 469 consumer complaints during fiscal year 2008, up from 350 filed in 2007.
While not all grievances were directed at DVMs — 21 closed cases concerned lay practice, most involving equine dentistry — the number of formal complaints reached 96, more than double the 39 tallied the previous year. (Formal complaints are those presented to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, a first step in the hearing process, when an issue fails to be resolved in mediation or reached by settlement.)
The recently released numbers paint an unflattering picture of veterinary practice in the state, but leaders are quick to point out that the percent of DVMs disciplined for all violations wasn’t nearly as bleak. Just 17.3 percent of licensees named in complaints were found guilty or admitted guilt to a violation, which virtually mirrors numbers tallied in 2005, the highest previous fiscal year on record (see related chart).
Still, the number of licensees disciplined by the board reached 81, compared to 42 recorded during 2007.
“The percentage of cases that result in violations is holding about steady, and that’s a good thing,” board Executive Director Dewey Helmcamp III says. “It’s inevitable that as the number of complaints increase, so will the number of violations by veterinarians.”
So what’s behind the increase in complaints? While it simply could be bad medicine, Helmcamp surmises that its much more complicated than that. Consumers are savvy, he says, increasingly turning to the Internet to research medical conditions and diseases and subsequently challenging the medical care provided by DVMs.
They’re also discovering how easy it is to file an online board complaint that alleges illegal practice or malpractice.
“I think it’s sort of like the old Field of Dreams statement, ’If you build it, they will come,’” Helmcamp says. “As the citizens of the state of Texas see our willingness and ability to aggressively investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute cases, they are feeling more comfortable to file complaints against both licensees as well as unlicensed persons operating in the state. Some of these are, of course, groundless, but still you have to investigate them. And the more you do that, the more you’re going to find that are, in fact, valid.”
What’s encouraging, Helmcamp says, is that standard-of-care complaints lag way behind administrative-type offenses at 79 and 105, respectively. And many housekeeping snags such as overdue Drug Enforcement Agency license renewals aren’t generated by consumer complaints but by on-site compliance inspectors.
Of the on-site inspections conducted during fiscal year 2008, officers reported 611 violations in veterinary practices. During previous years, compliance was ascertained only by questionnaire.