Uncovering the 'messy details' of veterinary communication: An analysis of communication problems in cases of alleged professional negligence

Vet Rec. 2022 Feb;190(3):e1068. doi: 10.1002/vetr.1068. Epub 2021 Nov 25.


Background: Communication failure is reported as a cause of error in veterinary practice and has been associated with complaints and litigation. Evidence describing the types and nature of communication problems is lacking. This limits our ability to mitigate the risk poor communication poses.

Methods: This study used a mixed methods approach to explore the frequency and types of communication problems present in settled cases of alleged veterinary professional negligence. Thematic analysis was conducted on written documents associated with 100 such cases involving canine patients. Interpretation was informed by human factors thinking and communication theory. Results were triangulated with findings from a focus group with the Veterinary Defence Society claims consultants and with healthcare literature on communication failures.

Results: Communication problems played a contributory role in 80% of the cases examined. The analysis highlighted features of problematic communication in veterinary practice that are underrepresented in the current literature. These include the prominence of communication problems within veterinary teams, the impact of communication on the safety of care and also the interdependence of communication events with the context, system and environment in which they occur.

Conclusions: These results suggest that communication is a collective competency. Effective communication is something veterinary systems, rather than individuals alone, achieve. There is a need to consider the team and organisational contexts in which communication occurs to ensure individual communication skills can be translated into communication practices that support the delivery of high-quality, safe veterinary care for the benefits of clinicians, owners and patients.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Communication*
  • Dogs
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Malpractice*

Grants and funding