|When OPD Comes Knocking|
Veterinary Professional Misconduct and the Office of Professional Discipline
The Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) is the division of the New York State Education Department’s Office of the Professions charged with investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating professional misconduct cases. “Professional misconduct” covers a wide range of unethical practices, illegal practices, and other improper activities. Any violation of the Education Law or any other law, any violation of the regulations that apply to the practice of all professions or specifically to the practice of veterinary medicine, or any instance in which a veterinarian’s actions are not consistent with accepted standards of veterinary medical practice can be professional misconduct.
A proven instance of professional misconduct can result in a warning, a fine to the licensed professional or, in cases showing a serious violation, a suspension or revocation of the license to practice veterinary medicine. Second and third complaints are scrutinized more carefully by the State Education Department (SED).
Most professional misconduct cases against veterinarians start with a consumer complaint – a complaint usually filed by a client who has not been satisfied with the treatment and care the veterinarian has provided to their animal. The SED has done a good job in making consumers aware that they can file a complaint with OPD – free of charge – any time they are unhappy with the services they have received from a licensed professional.
Every veterinarian, no matter how skilled or caring, will at some point have an unhappy client who decides to make a complaint to SED. Every complaint filed with OPD is reviewed to determine whether further action is warranted. OPD does not become involved in veterinarian-client disputes over fees, but every other complaint will be investigated at some level.
SED reports that the profession of veterinary medicine has one of the highest levels of complaints, on a per-licensee basis. They also report that the number of complaints found to be justified are among the lowest of all the professions.
When a complaint is received at OPD, it is referred to an investigator. All OPD investigators work on complaints received by OPD in the more than 50 professions licensed by SED (except for medicine, which is handled by the Office of Professional Medical Conduct at at the Department of Health), so none of them are specialists in veterinary medicine. An investigator will start the investigation by calling your practice, identifying himself or herself as being from OPD, and asking for a copy of your record in the case where a complaint has been received. You have approximately 30 days to provide a copy of your medical record. The investigator may also ask for you to describe what happened in a “narrative” separate from your medical record.
Years ago, the OPD investigators would conduct person-to-person interviews with veterinarians and other licensees against whom a complaint had been filed, but the number of new professions, the total number of complaints, and cutbacks in staffing at the State Education Department have made that approach unsustainable. The narrative requested by the investigator is a substitute for the personal interview.
The narrative should be put together with the help of an attorney, who will identify the issues that are raised by the complaint, and help you respond to each of those issues within the narrative.
Meanwhile, the OPD investigator is collecting other information in your case. They should have an initial written complaint from your client, and they may ask the client to respond to specific questions that have been raised by a veterinarian from the Board for Veterinary Medicine. If your client took the animal to another veterinarian for a second opinion, or a necropsy, if the animal died, the OPD investigator will ask that veterinarian to summarize their findings in writing for use in the investigation.
The investigator often has a complaint reviewed by a screener – a veterinarian from the NYS Board for Veterinary Medicine – who identifies specific aspects of the veterinary treatment that should be clarified by the investigator during the interview with the veterinarian against whom a complaint has been filed. The investigator does not identify aspects of assessment or treatment that may constitute professional conduct; they are trained to gather information that will first be reviewed by others to determine whether the alleged conduct complained about does or does not seem to constitute illegal or improper practice.
While you may be anxious to give the investigator “your side of the story,” just remember that anything you say becomes part of the investigatory file, and can be used as evidence against you if OPD decides to proceed with a misconduct case against you. The decision to proceed with a charge of professional misconduct is made jointly by the investigator, an OPD prosecutor, and a member of the Board for Veterinary Medicine. Between them they assess whether the factual information gathered by the investigator provides legally sufficient evidence to support a charge that you have acted contrary to applicable law or regulations, or that your actions do not meet currently accepted standards of good practice for the profession. The case will be prosecuted by OPD only if there is sufficient evidence to prove the charge and if the conduct investigated does constitute a violation.
The Regents’ goal for the Office of the Professions is to ensure that “The public will be served by qualified, ethical professionals who remain current with best practice in their fields...” and the disciplinary process is one of their primary tools in achieving this goal. That means that an investigator who is investigating a specific complaint against you will also be evaluating all the medical records they review and all other information on the practice of veterinary medicine in your practice for general compliance with the law and regulations, and general conformance with accepted standards of practice in the profession. A cautious approach to this scrutiny is always advisable.
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