7 Mistakes Veterinarians Make: How To Avoid Them

Veterinarians make mistakes; they are after all human, and we all make mistakes. The big problem is this can mean life or death for your pet, so you really need to know what the common mistakes are, and what you can do to avoid them. It’s very difficult to know how often medical errors really happen with our pets. The Veterinary Record surveyed recent veterinary graduates, and of the 82 of 105 respondents (78 per cent) stated that they had made a mistake; this resulted in a less than optimal or potentially adverse outcomes for a patient. This article will go over the top 7 veterinary mistakes, and what you can do to avoid them.

1. Surgical errors. This can mean attempting to spay a male cat (which I have once attempted), to much more serious errors such as leaving a sponge in the abdominal cavity, or performing surgery on the wrong leg. Unfortunately errors in surgery are much more common than most pet owners think, yet can be mostly prevented. Ensure that your veterinary clinic identifies your animal properly with a name tag. Show the surgeon or technician the exact lumps to be removed. Ask whether or not they use a checklist in surgery (they should). Ask about the type of anesthesia and the monitoring- you want a technician to be monitoring your dog or cat while surgery is performed. Then again ask about recovery- will your pet be adequately monitored after surgery.

2. Misdiagnoses. As in your pet being diagnosed with the wrong disease, or your concerns not being taken seriously. This can go all over the board, from serious diseases not being diagnosed, such as a disease called Addison’s which is difficult to properly confirm, and many older practitioners may not be fully up on their continuing education. Then there is the other extreme in which too many diagnostic tests happen, and a ‘disease’ is diagnosed which may not be serious. I can think of a patient who was sent to an MRI on the back, and while this happened a ‘mass’ was seen in the liver. This caused a whole bout of serious concern for the client, and a biopsy of the ‘mass’ showed a ‘possible cancer’. This led to more invasive procedures, unfortunate complications, and in the end the pet had nothing more than hepatic nodular hyperplasia- a benign swelling. You need to ask many questions and be very involved. Ask whether or not the diagnostic test is needed. Ask for a referral if you think your older vet is missing something serious.

3. Medication Errors. Medication being mixed up, prescribed at the incorrect dose ( either too much or too little), happens frequently. In my own practice I saw that with some staff being not adequately trained, or not taking proper care to ensure that the medication written on the label actually matched the medication being dispensed. In one situation a client was to be sent home with an antibiotic for a skin infection, and ended up being sent home with a very potent immune suppressive drug. To avoid these you need to be asking many questions: What is the name of the drug? What is this drug for. How much of the medication should I give and how often?

4. Pre-surgical screening. This is in part related to surgery, but highlights a common error- lack of initial screening. Ensure that your pet is properly examined on the day of surgery, before any type of anesthesia is given. If there are any concerns about your pet’s health and anesthesia, then I would advise some type of blood test screening for organ function and the ability to metabolize the anesthetic properly.

5. Escaping Pets. Who would ever think that their pet could escape at a veterinary clinic? I would, for being in veterinary practice there were many times a dog or cat got away, running through the clinic. Most of the times they were quickly caught, but occasionally they made it out the front or back door. In this case you want to ensure that the veterinary practice takes your concerns seriously, and that they keep the back door shut when moving pets from the kennels to the surgery/treatment room. Clearly you can avoid problems by having a well trained dog, and tell the front staff that your cat is an ‘escaper’ so hang on tight and make sure all the doors are closed.

6. Injection Problems. As in injecting things in the wrong place, or injecting things that shouldn’t be injected. The classic is having a intranasal kennel cough vaccine drawn up into a syringe, then injected into the skin ( as opposed to being squirted into the nose). This happened at a veterinary practice I once worked at ( I didn’t give the injection), and the dog developed serious complications of liver failure. Other injection problems include not calculating the correct dose, and injecting too much of a drug- this easily happens with insulin, sending diabetics into shock. Once again you need to be clear on what your dog or cat is getting for medication, and before your veterinarian (or lay staff) gives the ‘shot’ ask what it is for, and if that is the correct dose.

7. Supervision. Or more likely lack of supervision with new veterinary graduates, and new staff. The Veterinary Record survey of new graduates concluded that most of the medical errors happened due to lack of supervision. The new grads were hired, then left to fend for themselves. I myself had a similar experience in that after working for 2 weeks, my practice owner left me alone while he headed off on vacation. I recall spaying a large breed, overweight dog, having the uterine pedicles drop, and the abdominal cavity fill with blood. I struggled to find where the bleeding was coming from, and I thought that this dog could die. Fortunately I was able to locate the bleeding pedicle adjacent to the kidney, re-ligate it, and the dog recovered well. But this doesn’t always happen, and this could have been completely avoided if I had adequate supervision.

Mistakes happen in veterinary practice- many more than you think as there are not statistics on veterinary errors. As a concerned pet owner, you can go a long way in preventing any of these from happening to your dog or cat by being involved. Ask questions about your veterinary practice and veterinarian. Do they use a surgical checklist? Is there adequate supervision of the animals during and after surgery. Ask about any medication being given to your pet-whether it is a tablet, or injection. You can’t prevent all, but you can prevent most veterinary errors.

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