One of the big discussion topics within the veterinary profession at the moment is the RCVS consultation on UK-qualified vets adopting the courtesy title of “Doctor”, or “Dr”.
Given that the consultation closed on February 16, I may seem a bit late to add my two pennies’ worth, but I didn’t really know how I felt on the matter and wanted to assess the justifications before assuming a position on one side of the fence or the other.
Reasons for and against
There are valid arguments for both sides – and while those against the use of “Doctor” invariably shout louder with their opinions, there is an undeniable majority (at least across the veterinary student body) in favour of the change. In fact, a poll on the Association of Veterinary Students’ (AVS) Facebook page found 97% of respondents were in favour of adopting the title.
The suggestion is that use of the title would bring vets parity with doctors and dentists in the UK, and also with veterinarians in the US, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe. It has also been suggested the change would see an increased respect for vets and help highlight the level of training required (which is of similar length and breadth of doctors and dentists).
Those against the idea argue that human surgeons do not style themselves “Doctor” (due to a historical quirk that differentiates them from physicians) and so, as veterinary surgeons, we already are on a level playing field with our human counterparts. However, as those less surgically minded are quick to point out, vets are not just surgeons; we are GPs, radiographers, anaesthetists, midwives etc, and so our skill set expands beyond those constrained by this historical quirk.
Additionally, in the US, vets are termed “veterinarians” rather than “veterinary surgeons”, which makes this historical quirk inapplicable if the argument is simply down to semantics.
Instead of achieving parity and clarity, some claim it would actually cause more confusion as vets are neither medical doctors or PhD holders (unless they have indeed spent another few gruelling years at university), although the relevance of this in a clinical situation is questionable – are clients or farmers really going to be too fussed about whether you have a PhD if you’re calling yourself “Doctor”? They’re probably more interested in whether or not you can heal their dog or calve a cow.
To this end, giving vets the option to use the title may cause further confusion as not all veterinary professionals will necessarily take it up. So should we have this option, or should we stick firmly to an “all or nothing” approach to ultimately achieve true coherence and unity?
A matter of trust
I feel the reasoning with regards to increasing respect for vets and highlighting their level of training is weak – most people outwith the veterinary field actually think we undergo more training than we do (how many times have you been asked if you train for seven years?), and I don’t believe respect comes from having a couple of extra letters before your name. Respect must be earned through demonstration of skill and – perhaps more relevantly – client trust.
It is this aspect of trust I believe to be the most important justification against the use of the title, and perhaps the one that might just tip the balance for me to fall into the “against” crowd.
It is said the client-vet relationship is often far better than the patient-doctor relationship, with vets often getting to know their regular clients as well as the animals they bring in. Many clients see their vets as friends and so trust their judgement and take heed of their advice (how many times do you hear the question “what would you do if this were your dog?” ?).
Rather than developing trust towards a friend, adopting the title “Doctor” may actually form a barrier (however unintentionally), causing an immediate distance between professional and customer due to subtleties such as the client feeling less inclined to be on first name terms with the vet. This would be the cost of the “respect” the title holds.
Rather than trying to force this respect, would we not be better off preserving the relationship and earning respect through trust?
My gut reaction to the suggestion was yes, of course I’d call myself “Doctor” given the choice – but I began to think a bit more carefully when the strong opposing statements had a substantial backbone to them.
And then, on a very personal level, I remembered that I am “blessed” with a unisex name and, as such, always sign emails with a definitive MISS in front of it. For an entirely un-veterinary related reason, I might consider keeping the Miss/Ms just to avoid turning up at an interview to a confused look before the employer realises their mistaken assumption (yes, this happens more times than you would think).
Alternatively, in an increasingly female-dominated profession where males may still be considered (however wrongly) to be superior, those two letters in front of my name may cause sufficient confusion to gain an interview I may otherwise have been denied based on gender… but that’s an entirely different debate.