Emergency services advice for new practices
The Veterinary Code requires veterinarians to ensure there is an emergency service available for their clients at all times.
Veterinary emergencies are defined here. This is to ensure that animal health and welfare is protected; the public’s trust in the profession is upheld; that veterinarians have a social licence to operate; and future veterinary care is sustainable.
Veterinarians and veterinary businesses [Veterinarians], including new businesses, must ensure emergency and after hours care is available for animals they have consulted on. This emergency and after hours care must be provided within a reasonable distance from their usual clinic.
This means Veterinarians should have a 24/7 facility or be affiliated with a 24/7 facility that will enable the animal to be physically examined (e.g. companion animals) or visited (e.g. farm with production animals) within a reasonable time. The facility also needs to have the capacity to investigate if the animal suffers any negative event (including a lack of response) or deterioration in their condition.
The emergency service must be sufficiently resourced, so that all veterinary emergencies involving clients’ animals are managed in a reasonable time, barring circumstances outside the Veterinarian’s control.
When considering operating a veterinary business, Veterinarians must be aware of the requirement to ensure emergency services are available for their clients 24/7. It is important for clinics providing 24/7 care to plan and resource a sustainable ongoing service. For example, it might be difficult to deliver the service, if the client base grows too large.
Depending on the business model, there needs to be an appropriate and sustainable veterinarian to client ratio. If service delivery became unsustainable, the Veterinarian would, depending on the extent of the workload, need to consider:
- Making arrangements with another veterinary emergency service (e.g. a dedicated emergency after-hours clinic or developing an agreement with another local practice to deliver the service)
- Managing client demand by
- capping their client list
- removing some clients from their list
- increasing their resources to deliver emergency services
- combining their business resources with another veterinary service provider to ensure they maintain a sustainable workload.
Veterinary practices may make arrangements for another veterinarian or veterinary business to provide emergency services.
It is the Veterinary Business’ responsibility to formally make these arrangements, ideally in a written agreement, and to then provide clients the details of where they will be able to obtain emergency and after hours care for their animal/s. It is not sufficient for a Veterinarian to rely on the knowledge the client is registered at another practice.
This should ideally be confirmed in writing, as part of the conditions of service agreed to by the client. If existing clients do not know where to take their animals for emergency and after hours care, they should be advised as soon as practicable.
Veterinarians are not expected to respond to emergencies within a set timeframe but should respond reasonably promptly, taking into account factors such as other animals needing to be seen more urgently, staff availability, and local conditions such as travel time.
There may be times when the on-duty veterinarian is unable to attend every emergency within a reasonable time. If this happens, the veterinarian should make efforts to inform the owner and document the reasons for the delay. Where appropriate, veterinarians should make alternative arrangements to ensure an emergency service is provided.
Exceptions to the requirement to provide emergency veterinary services include remote or inaccessible locations; low population density where there are few options for veterinary service; and instances when travel may be logistically difficult because of distance, terrain, or weather.
Clients living in remote and inaccessible areas are unlikely to receive the same level of emergency veterinary service as people living in more populated areas. The more isolated the client is from the Veterinarian, the more difficult it may be to provide comprehensive emergency cover. It may also be more difficult for a veterinarian on duty to find cover to attend to the needs of an animal requiring immediate first aid or pain relief.
In these circumstances, veterinarians must provide 24/7 phone advice as a minimum.