Technical advice: Emergency services and travel times

30 April 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.

What is a reasonable time between a client's call and a veterinarian attending an animal in an emergency of afterhours situation?


The Code of Professional Conduct and the provision of emergency services

The Code addresses emergency care in Section 7 of the Veterinary Services section.

The Code expects veterinarians in clinical practice to make emergency services available to their clients’ animals at all times and that the veterinarian must be able to be attended within a reasonable time frame.

The Code also recognises that there may be circumstances when a veterinarian won’t be able to attend an emergency in a reasonable time. For example:

  • the veterinarian is unexpectedly overloaded with emergency calls of a similar or higher priority to the emergency
  • the veterinarian becomes incapacitated by injury, ill health or excessive fatigue while on duty to a level that compromises their ability to provide the level of care expected
  • the veterinarian believes that attending the particular emergency would place their own safety or health at risk.

Dedicated and shared emergency services

Dedicated emergency after hours clinics and practices working together to share the provision of emergency services can mean some animal owners may have to travel further to receive service. The disadvantages of longer travel may be offset by the advantages (e.g. constant veterinary supervision) associated with the type of veterinary service offered by such clinics.

When considering referring clients to another clinic for emergencies, veterinarians should give thought to what is an acceptable time or distance for their clients to travel, taking into account local factors and conditions.


What is a reasonable time or distance to travel?

This varies depending on the circumstances and involves a number of factors, including:

  • The standards evident in general veterinary practice. In other words, what is considered normal and acceptable from other practices in a similar situation.
  • Whether there are benefits of the service being provided that are better in comparison to an alternative or conventional service (e.g. constant veterinary supervision, additional or more experienced staff, better facilities, etc).
  • Societal expectations and norms, including comparing expectations for human health care. For example, 13% of the population are estimated to take up to 30min longer than the ‘golden hour’ (within 60–90 minutes) to access to advanced-level hospital care.
  • Environmental factors. For example, there may be only a small number of veterinarians servicing large, geographically remote areas which could mean less capability to provide a timely emergency response.
  • Temporary resource constraints. Staffing shortages and similar issues may mean that response times have to be longer than normal in the short term. However, it is important that practices who consider themselves unable to provide emergency services at all contact VCNZ to discuss the issue.

Client communication is essential

It is vital that practices inform their clients of what they can expect in terms of emergency and afterhours services proactively. Setting expectations around response times and service levels in advance gives clients warning and allows them to make their own decisions about how they will cope with emergencies involving their animals. This is also reduces the likelihood of complaints and conflict arising from expectations not being met.


Who is responsible for deciding on the provision of the emergency services?

The responsibility to make provision for an emergency service lies with the primary veterinarian. They can do this by referring to another practice as long as they have the agreement of the other practice. The referring veterinarian must use their judgement to decide whether the practice they are referring emergency cases to will be able to provide an appropriate service in terms of time or distance travelled, skills, facilities, etc.


If a veterinarian is unable to attend

The veterinarian is expected to assist the caller (or where that is not possible, arrange for someone else to assist the caller) to access an alternative veterinary service if they are unable to attend.

If the veterinarian is already in transit or is attending an emergency they would be expected to use their judgement to decide the most appropriate course of action taking into account the individual circumstances and the best potential outcomes.