Dr Daniela S paeth (BVSc) and Dr Graeme Harman (BVSc),
Accumulating debt and writing-off hard earned profits year after year seems to be an ubiquitous problem within our veterinary profession. In fact, after discussing this matter with vets all over the country, it seems there is no single private veterinary practice which can claim a “debt-free” status.
Infuriating battles with clients who continuously refuse payment rob us of the joy and fulfilment we should experience practicing our unique and often clinically very rewarding profession. In short, these debt accumulations add to our increasing lack of empathy and understanding, which our patients really deserve. It also adds to our daily stress load and to a growing incidence of depression and apathy towards our profession into which we once entered with passion and dedication.
A case in point is Mr ‘Chop’, an unregistered Pitbull breeder, who occasionally needs help afterhours when one of his bitches experiences complications while in labour. He has built up a history of calling out various vets in the ‘Kaalvlakte’ district in the middle of the night to help him out with whatever procedure might be necessary. Because payment collection in the middle of the night is often a difficulty he has built up accounts with 5 different veterinary clinics in the district. These accounts later remain unpaid. On top of this, Mr ‘Chop’ has sent out a lawyer’s letter to certain vets threatening to sue for the loss of puppies not born alive. While this does illustrate an extreme case of an individual client causing a group of veterinarians much trouble, there are certainly many other vets that can come up with similar cases of clients abusing the veterinarian’s hard work and refusing payment. How do we go about avoiding this kind of stress and frustration that has severe negative effects on our personal and professional lives?
Finally, a new software system, called UmbrellaThorn Data, has been developed specifically to deal with this problematic aspect of being a vet in private practice. It works on a history of bad payments logged by various practices in a given area.
It functions in accordance with the South-African Consumers Act and the Guidelines of the South-African
Veterinary Council. In particular it pertains to the ‘Rules relating to the practicing of Veterinary Professionals stipulated in the Veterinary and Para-Veterinary Professions Act of 1982 and its Amendments’.
(Refer in particular to the Amendment of 2015 page 12, Article 4. (General principles), paragraph 3. c) Professional Care and d) Confidentiality)
c) Professional care: To give due importance to the welfare of the patient: The veterinary professional may, as far as it is within his/her professional ability, not refuse or discontinue treatment to an animal without valid reason; valid reasons include but are not limited to: dangerous animals, verbal abuse, physical violence, and history of non-payment by the owner. Where there are financial constraints, the only treatment that a veterinary professional will ever be obliged to offer at a discounted rate or free of charge, for the sake of animal welfare, is euthanasia.
(d) Confidentiality: To respect the confidentiality of information acquired as a result of professional services and the relationships emanating therefrom, and, therefore, not disclose any such information to third parties without proper and specific authority, unless there is a legal or professional right or duty to disclose, nor use the information for the personal advantage of the veterinary professional or third parties.
Accordingly, once a “bad-payer” has been identified and has refused answering to various statements and reminders issued by the practice in question, he can be issued with a letter of Notification of further Legal Action and Adverse Listing as formatted by the UmbrellaThorn Data legal team. This letter thereafter permits legal listing on the web-linked data system if the client does not reply within 48 hours of receiving the letter.
The veterinarian by law then no longer needs to render the registered client any services until fees are paid. The enlisted client’s details can now be accessed by any surrounding veterinary practice that signs up to the system. The next veterinarian approached by the same debtor can now legally, and according to the history, refuse service afterhours or during regular consulting hours. Ideally such a client should rather be referred back to the practice where he holds an outstanding account and be encouraged to pay this before receiving service.
To comply with the Confidentiality Clause, a template of Terms and Conditions is also provided on the system by the UmbrellaThorn Data legal advisors. These Terms and Conditions require a signature from the addressed client which hereby authorises the veterinarian to disclose relevant information to third parties. The terms and conditions should then be incorporated into any standard admission forms of the hospital to make the process completely legal.
So what does this mean for Mr “Chop”, the Pitbull breeder? With the application of the Umbrella Thorn App, Mr “C” is now registered on the system and the next vet rung in the middle of the night can cross-reference his phone number or I.D. number and legally refuse him service until his debts are fully paid. Amazingly, he has started making payments.
The proven benefits of using this software have already been trialled by most veterinary clinics in Mpumalanga. These benefits include a great increase in immediate payment once the first Letter of Adverse Listing is issued as well as further returns once clients realise the practical implication of being listed. From that point onwards it avoids debts from ever starting to build-up and, most of all, it finally provides an effective forum from which colleagues can engage with each other in mutually beneficial co-operation.
UmbrellaThorn Data might just be what we have waited for to get back to enjoying the clinical challenges of our profession. It should allow us to improve the quality of our work by focusing on our case load rather than fighting fruitless and stressful administrative battles, especially in this day and age, when the effects of a negative economic growth can be felt all around us and the incidence of bad payment has a tendency to escalate, we should pull together and ensure that we receive what is rightfully ours and what we have studied and worked so hard to achieve.