A former Co. Down-based veterinary surgeon has had his RCVS sanction hearing and decision postponed, despite admitting four separate charges related to fraudulent pet insurance claims.
The move comes after he agreed to enter into undertakings the RCVS Disciplinary Committee offered.
Each charge related to fraudulent pet insurance claims that Dr. Donal Johnston MRCVS had made for the treatment of animals when he was in practice in Down.
Two were “fictitious”, and where he had arranged for the insurance claims to be diverted and paid into a personal bank account rather than the practice’s bank account, a committee sitting heard.
At an earlier hearing, which concluded in April 2022, Dr. Johnston had admitted all the charges against him and that his conduct was “dishonest and amounted to serious professional misconduct”.
The committee was satisfied that Dr Johnston’s conduct amounted to serious professional misconduct.
Committee chair, Paul Morris, said the committee has “no hesitation” in concluding that the respondent’s “dishonest conduct will have severely undermined the confidence of the public in the veterinary profession and, further”.
He added that his conduct “fell far short of the standards and conduct properly to be expected of a member of the veterinary profession”.
He also “brought the profession into disrepute”, Morris added.
The proceedings were then adjourned to allow for the preparation of a psychiatric report and other mitigation.
At the committee resumed hearing on Monday, November 1st, it considered what sanction to impose in relation to Dr. Johnston’s actions and reviewed the aggravating and mitigating factors in his conduct.
The committee found that aggravating features of his misconduct were that it was:
- Carefully planned;
- Involved creating “numerous and extensive” false clinical records to support his fraudulent claims;
- Implicated an innocent professional colleague who worked alongside him at the practice;
- Abused the trust placed in him by clients;
- Dishonest conduct was repeated;
- Involved significant financial gain in excess of £13,200.
In terms of mitigation, the committee accepted that he had made early admissions regarding his conduct to his employer and the college and accepted responsibility.
It also heard that he had made attempts at remediation involving repayments of some of the sums lost by the practice and insurers.
Also, it considered positive testimonials from family and professional colleagues.
It also Dr. Johnston had taken significant steps to deal with “the gambling addiction that was at the root cause” of his misconduct.
Having considered all the evidence, the committee decided to postpone its decision on sanction for two years with the following conditions:
- Refrain from any form of gambling;
- Subject himself to a close regime of support and supervision;
- Repay some of the sums he had defrauded.
According to Morris, the committee took an “exceptional” course in this case.
Ordinarily, the conduct of the type covered by the charges, which this respondent has accepted, will merit the imposition of a sanction of removal from the register or a period of suspension from the register.
In this instance, the committee has found it possible to take its chosen course because it is “satisfied that the respondent was, at the time, suffering from a recognisable psychiatric compulsive addiction”.
“The fraudulent attempts by the respondent to obtain funds with which to gamble would not have occurred but for this psychiatric condition”.
The committee is “satisfied” with the requirements that neither animals nor the public will be put at risk by this proposed course of action.
The respondent, the spokesperson said, has demonstrated insight into the “seriousness” of his misconduct and that there is currently no “significant” risk of repeat behaviour.
Counselling, support and CPD
The spokesperson concluded:
“His practicing standards are not in need of improvement so long as he continues to fulfil his CPD obligations.”
“The undertakings offered are capable of being met, are appropriate and are measurable, and there is evidence that his underlying medical problem is being appropriately addressed, will be monitored and reported on.”
“He has responded positively to the opportunities for support and counselling which have been offered to him,” the spokesperson added.
If Dr. Johnston fails to comply with his undertakings, the committee will reconvene and consider the charges with “the full range of sanctions at its disposal”.
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