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IT'S official. Following a decision by the RCVS Council last week, UK veterinary surgeons can now call themselves Dr.

The question of whether UK vets should be allowed to use the courtesy title ‘Dr’, or whether they should stick to the more traditional Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms, has been debated on and off in the profession for longer than most people can remember, usually with no obvious conclusion but with some interesting arguments being made both for and against (see, for example, VR, November 26, 2005, vol 157, p 716; December 17, 2005, vol 157, p 820). The last time the matter was aired seriously in these pages, about 10 years ago, there seemed to be no overwhelmingly obvious enthusiasm for the idea. However, opinions change and time moves on. This time around, following an RCVS consultation on the issue at the beginning of the year (VR, January 10, 2015, vol 176, p 33), the idea attracted widespread support and a proposal to allow veterinary surgeons to use the title sailed through the Council meeting with nary a voice in dissent.

In agreeing the change, the RCVS Council also agreed on new guidance, to be attached to the Code of Professional Conduct, explaining that, although there is nothing to prevent veterinary surgeons from using the title ‘Doctor’ or ‘Dr’ if they want to, they must be careful not to do so in a way that misleads the public.

The scale of the response to the College's consultation was impressive, with more than 11,000 people responding, most via an online survey. About half of those responding were veterinary surgeons, and about a quarter were members of the public. Veterinary students made up 22 per cent of the total, with veterinary nurses, veterinary nurse students and practice managers accounting for the rest. The online survey also provided an opportunity for respondents to include qualitative comments, and 3385 did so.

Summarising the results, the RCVS reports that 81 per cent of respondents were in favour of the change, 13 per cent were not in favour and 6 per cent said they didn't mind either way. As a group, the veterinary students responding were the most enthusiastic about the change, with 95 per cent being in favour, followed by veterinary surgeons, 80 per cent of whom were in favour. About 75 per cent of the members of the public who responded were in favour of the change, while veterinary nurses were the group least keen on the change, with 58 per cent being in favour and 30 per cent being against. The RCVS notes that comments from veterinary nurses who were not in favour of the idea indicated that they felt that vets' use of the title ‘Dr’ could cause confusion among clients and that protecting the title ‘RVN’ was more important.

Discussing the thinking behind the proposal in its consultation document in January, the RCVS suggested that allowing all veterinary surgeons registered with the College to use the title ‘Dr’ would ‘align the UK with international practice and provide greater clarity for the profession and the public’. In addition, it said, it would offer reassurance to clients and the animal-owning public that all veterinary surgeons registered with the RCVS, regardless of where they qualified, had veterinary degrees of an appropriate standard. ‘Veterinary surgeons, like doctors and dentists, are physicians,’ it pointed out. ‘Doctors and dentists in the UK are permitted to use “Dr” as a courtesy title and allowing members of the RCVS to do the same would provide a level of parity with fellow clinical professionals.’

On the basis of an analysis of the qualitative comments received during its consultation, it reports that key themes identified from comments in favour of the proposal included that use of the title by UK vets would prevent confusion rather than cause it, by, for example, bringing them into line with international colleagues and making it clear at a practice who is a vet and who is not. By not using the title, UK veterinary surgeons, it was argued, were at a competitive disadvantage compared to their international counterparts. Key themes identified from comments from those who were against the proposal were that not all veterinary surgeons are entitled to call themselves ‘Dr’ in other European countries on completing their undergraduate degree, for example in Germany, where they must complete a period of postgraduate study first. It was also argued that, if veterinary surgeons want to use the title ‘Dr’, the veterinary degree should be a doctoral degree, as in the USA and Canada.

The survey results suggested that most of the respondents felt it was unlikely that vets using the title ‘Dr’ would cause confusion between veterinary surgeons and medical doctors or those holding PhDs.

Both the BVA and the BSAVA submitted responses supporting the proposal, while a response from the Kennel Club argued against. The Kennel Club was concerned, on the basis of a survey involving 396 assured breeders, that the change could confuse the animal-owning public. However, the RCVS notes that the results of this survey were not consistent with those of its online consultation.

The responses from the three organisations, along with the rest of the consultation results, were included in the papers considered by the RCVS Council at its meeting last week, at which it decided to go ahead. These are available at www.rcvs.org.uk/about-us/rcvs-council/council-meetings/5-march-2015/

For the Council to have reached its decision with so little argument might seem something of an anticlimax given the passions aroused by discussion of this issue in the past. However, given the results of the consultation, there was little left for the Council to discuss. It remains to be seen how many vets will actually avail themselves of the option of calling themselves Dr. In view of the almost overwhelmingly positive response to the consultation, one would expect the answer to be quite a lot.

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