Technical advice: Emergency services and offering a specific and limited range of veterinary services

20 July 2021

Technical advice is our interpretation of how professional standards apply in a particular situation. It is designed to help veterinarians deal with common issues in practice, using their professional judgement to apply the advice to their own situation. It represents our best efforts at the time of publication but standards and expectations change over time and particular care should be used when reading old advice.

My business offers a specific and limited range of veterinary services only (I don't consider myself to be my clients' "main" or general veterinarian). What are my obligations for providing a 24/7 general emergency service?

In the context of emergency service provision requirements, we interpret “a specific and limited range of veterinary services” as being where all of the following conditions are met: 

  • The Veterinarian provides services that requires a level of expertise that is higher than regular veterinary practice (for example referral equine dentistry services or embryo transfer services)
  • The service is relatively limited in its scope so as not to be confused with the services provided by a regular veterinarian (see below)
  • The service is not likely to be seen as a substitute by the client to them developing a relationship with a general veterinary practitioner.

A General Veterinary Practitioner (GVP) is the predominant veterinarian(s) or practice(s) who can be considered to be the provider of the regular and general veterinary services for an animal or group of animals.

A GVP must accept the major responsibility for providing emergency care for those animals.

Code of Professional Conduct says:

Veterinarians in clinical practice must make an emergency service available at all times so that their clients’ animals can receive essential veterinary treatment in order to relieve unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress. The service must be sufficiently resourced so that, except in extraordinary circumstances, all veterinary emergencies involving clients' animals are attended in reasonable time to ensure the welfare of the animals.

Where veterinarians are planning to provide a specific and limited range of veterinary services, they must first find out from the client who their general veterinary practitioner is and seek the client's permission to contact them.
The Code also requires that veterinarians who provide a specific and limited range of veterinary services to client/s (for example consultancy services) must arrange for 24-hour emergency care in relation to the matters consulted on.
Hence if the emergency specifically relates to the veterinary services provided by your practice the client can legitimately expect you to provide emergency care.

Where a veterinarian chooses to provide specific services only, but these do not meet the above criteria (e.g. they are normally considered regular veterinary practice work and do not require a higher and more focussed level of expertise), our interpretation is that they are acting as a GVP and are expected to meet full emergency service provision requirements.

Many clients will have more than one veterinarian and we encourage collegiality in these circumstances. 
Veterinarians who provide a specific and limited range of veterinary services to client/s (for example consultancy services) must ask the client for consent to contact the client’s GVP and share relevant information while treating the animal(s). It would be sensible to develop a relationship to ensure there is clarity around their responsibilities for emergency cover etc.

Where a client doesn’t consent to the veterinarian contacting the GVP the veterinarian must consider whether they are able to provide services. Veterinarians finding themselves in these circumstances must exercise their professional judgement in deciding whether to proceed, balancing the Code's expectations against the best interests of the patient. The welfare and safety of the patient should be of primary importance in making this decision.