‘We’re gonna end up scared to do anything’: A qualitative exploration of how client complaints are experienced by UK veterinary practitioners
Gibson, J, et al. (2022) ‘We’re gonna end up scared to do anything’: A qualitative exploration of how client complaints are experienced by UK veterinary practitioners. Veterinary Record, e1737.
The aim of this qualitative study was to provide an insight into UK veterinary practitioners’ experiences of client complaints.
Data was gathered via focus groups and through individual interviews with UK veterinary practitioners who had experienced a client complaint in the previous two years. Recorded transcripts were coded, and themes and subthemes identified during the data gathering process.
Twelve focus groups, with a total of 67 participants and 15 individual interviews, were carried out. Five focus groups were composed of veterinary surgeons only, three groups of registered/student veterinary nurses only, and four were a mix of veterinary surgeons and nurses, of which two included management/leadership staff. The interviews included 13 veterinary surgeons and two veterinary nurses who had received advice and representation from the Veterinary Defence Society concerning negligence and/or professional misconduct or had experienced practice-level complaints or disciplinary processes.
The theme ‘experiencing client complaints’ was identified in the focus groups and further explored in the interviews. Within this theme, three subthemes were identified: emotional aspects, professional aspects, and potentiating factors, which addressed two questions: how do client complaints impact veterinary practitioners and what potentiates these impacts?
The emotional impact of client complaints was shown to be a dominant issue affecting both personal and family life as well as clinical confidence. Participants reported being in a state of subconscious distraction and unintended disengagement from clinical work.
Participants highlighted the vexatious nature of some complaints, as well as concerns over practice level and regulatory complaints processes with lack of support, discriminatory and scapegoating behaviours, and the influence of ‘trial by media’ identified as particular issues.
The authors include some suggestions for measures that practices could take to help reduce the detrimental consequences of client complaints. These include the implementation of client-practice charters, outlining practice commitments and client responsibilities, making client feedback channels more user-friendly, and ensuring that when investigating critical events, contributing organisational factors, not just the actions of an individual, are considered.
Limitations of the study include the study researchers are all veterinary surgeons, which may have led to some of the findings being under- or overstated due to personal relevance. The generalisability of the study results is limited.
The study provides evidence of the huge impact client complaints have on practitioners both personally and professionally. This evidence will support any review of how client complaints are currently managed at a practice and professional level. Further research on how tailored emotional support can be provided for those who are the subject of a client complaint is encouraged.
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