Anatomy of a licensing board investigation (Proceedings)
One of the key tenets of a self-governed profession is the requirement of the members of the profession to regulate and, when warranted, sanction its own members who might engage in conduct which is unprofessional and adverse to the public interest. All veterinarians in throughout North America are governed by their own state or provincial licensing bodies which have a mandate to regulate the profession including taking appropriate investigative and disciplinary action. Having one's conduct reviewed by one's own peer group can be a stressful and worrisome time; hopefully, understanding the process that is undertaken and recognizing that there are protocols established to ensure the fairness of the proceeding may serve to relieve some of the anxiety.
State and provincial statutes permit the licensing boards and regulatory authorities to initiate an investigation into the conduct of a veterinary practitioner in the event that the board becomes aware of allegations of inappropriate conduct. In addition, investigations can be commenced as a result to a formal, written complaint by a client or other member of the public about the conduct of a veterinarian; most typically, written complaints are dealt with initially at the complaints committee or peer review committee of the state or provincial organization after the practitioner has had an opportunity to respond, in writing, to the allegations that have been leveled against him or her. In most cases, the decision of the complaints committee or peer review committee is such that no further action is required; however, in more serious cases (particularly those demonstrating allegations of serious malpractice or dishonesty), the review may be referred to the state licensing board or disciplinary panel of the provincial body for a full hearing.As a licensed member of the veterinary medical association, the veterinarian must co-operate with the investigation and provide copies of all relevant documents necessary to conduct same. As well, the veterinarian has a professional obligation to respond to inquiries made by the licensing body in a timely manner.
Rules of administrative fairness require the regulatory authority to provide full disclosure to the veterinarian under scrutiny of all of the allegations and the evidence supporting the allegations, including any expert witness reports, well in advance of a disciplinary hearing. In the event that the veterinarian wishes to contradict any evidence by way of his or her own expert's report, then such report must be provided to the prosecution in advance of a hearing as well. The failure to provide full and frank disclosure of all of the material evidence could lead to a dismissal of the case.
A disciplinary hearing is a relatively formal proceeding before the members of the Licensing Board or Discipline Committee of the regulatory authority. In many cases, the proceedings are overseen by a panel of three members of the association (one of which typically represents a member-at-large who is a non-veterinarian). The hearing is generally attended by a court reporter who transcribes the evidence in the event that the decision of the Board or Committee is appealed by either the defence or the prosecution. While similar to court proceedings, the rules of evidence are often relaxed in an administrative hearing and more discretion is permitted by the panel to permit or reject evidence. The onus is upon the prosecution to prove the case against the veterinarian; most often this is attempted by the calling of various individuals as witnesses including the client and any experts. Expert evidence can only be admitted provided that the party calling such a witness has first introduced sufficient evidence to qualify the individual to provide expert testimony through the disclosure of the witness' qualifications and experience.
The prosecution introduces its evidence followed by cross-examination of the witnesses in order to challenge their testimony. Thereafter, the defence is called upon to introduce its evidence; the prosecution similarly has the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses.
Once all of the evidence is introduced, each of the parties has the opportunity to offer a closing statement to the panel after which the panel members generally retire to consider all of the evidence and come to a decision as to the guilt or innocence of the practitioner. If a guilty verdict is returned, each party then has the opportunity make submissions as to the appropriate penalty ranging from the revocation or suspension of the license to practice medicine to the delivery of a verbal or written reprimand or a limited monetary fine. In some jurisdictions, a successful prosecution can result in an order for the unsuccessful practitioner to pay all or a part of the costs of the regulatory body in investigating and prosecuting the case - those costs are often very substantial.
In the event that either party is dissatisfied with the result of a discipline hearing, the case may be appealed; the appeal is heard by members of the state or provincial judicial system.