The RCVS Disciplinary Committee has suspended a veterinary surgeon formerly practising in Southampton for failing to make animal welfare his primary concern.

At a hearing this week, adjourned from September 2010, the Disciplinary Committee heard charges against Michael Albring, formerly of VetCall practice, Bitterne, Southampton. Mr Albring was said to have failed to make a home visit to attend Bear, a Newfoundland dog belonging to Mrs Thacker, when he knew, or ought to have known, that there were clinical or welfare grounds making a home visit necessary.

The hearing was held in Mr Albring's absence; the Committee considered that, having postponed the case last year at his request, Mr Albring had had ample time to prepare his case and submit any mitigations, and sufficient opportunity to attend. Additional adjournment would further delay the matter's resolution and not be in the wider interests of justice, or public confidence in either the RCVS disciplinary system or the veterinary profession.

On the evening of 19 December 2009, Mr Albring had been the veterinary surgeon on duty at VetCall, a practice that provides the out of-hours emergency cover for several local veterinary practices, including the one where Bear was registered. When Mrs Thacker's daughter, Ms Davidson, telephoned VetCall to request a home visit as the dog had collapsed, she was told that it was against practice policy for the practice to be left unmanned so this would not be possible. This was despite a written policy which accepted and made provision for the rare occasions when a home visit would be necessary. Phoning again later, the information about practice policy was repeated and Ms Davidson directed to a local animal ambulance service, which attended.

The ambulance driver found that the dog could not be transported in the ambulance and telephoned VetCall to say a home visit was needed. This was refused by Mr Albring even, the Committee noted, when the ambulance driver offered to collect Mr Albring, drive him to Ms Davidson's home 10-15 minutes away, assist with the euthanasia, and return him to the clinic. In the interim, Ms Davidson had also sought help from a separate practice and, subsequent to Mr Albring's refusal to visit, their on-duty veterinary surgeon attended and euthanased Bear. 

The Committee found that Mr Albring's refusal to visit, once it was clear Bear could not be transported, and he knew that a home visit was necessary on welfare grounds, resulted in Bear spending longer than necessary in pain and distress. This was not a case where the pressure of work or the welfare needs of other animals prevented Mr Albring from attending, and it was also relevant that Mr Albring was specifically employed to work out of hours in an emergency clinic. Serious, too, was his failure to reply promptly to communications from the RCVS, or show insight into the seriousness of his conduct.

In mitigation, the Committee accepted that this was an isolated case, and there were no previous findings against Mr Albring.  He was in sole charge of an emergency clinic covering 15-20 practices across Southampton and Portsmouth, which would make, in some circumstances, home visits difficult.

Professor Sheila Crispin, chairing the Disciplinary Committee, said: "The Committee is concerned that the actual policy pursued by the clinic regarding domiciliary visits was different to the written one.

"In effect, a no-visits policy existed at the VetCall clinic and this must have added to the pressure under which the Respondent [Mr Albring] was working.

"The Committee is mindful that the object of sanctions is not to be punitive, but to protect animal welfare, to maintain public confidence in the profession and to maintain appropriate standards," she continued, noting that as animal welfare had knowingly been neglected and Mr Albring had demonstrated no insight, a warning or reprimand would not be enough.  "A period of suspension would be sufficient to maintain public confidence in the profession and uphold standards," she said.

The Committee directed that Mr Albring's name be suspended from the RCVS Register of Veterinary Surgeons for ten months.

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