What is a veterinary specialist, and why does it matter?
Many veterinary surgeries are now advertising that they have a veterinary specialist in certain fields, for example dermatology or orthopaedics, and our clients are asking exactly what this means. So here’s an explanation.
The increased availability of veterinary specialists is a great idea. Some specialists are doing outreach days at practices a couple of hours drive from their normal base. This means that patients and their owners do not have to travel so far to be seen with a complicated problem. It minimises stress for both client and animal, and lessens costs for the client during what can be a very expensive time.
However, some practices are claiming to have a ‘specialist’, but the person involved is actually less experienced or knowledgeable than they should be.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) has very strict rules about who can call themselves a specialist. The RCVS is the body that regulates and licences veterinary surgeons. They can impose penalties on anyone claiming to be a vet or a specialist when they aren’t.
In order to use the title specialist, a vet has to do at least four years study in their chosen field; publish papers and a case report; and pass written, oral, and in some cases a practical exam. This gives them a diploma in that field, but to call themselves a specialist they must also make an active contribution to their specialty, have national and international acclaim, and publish papers widely in their field. In order to ensure they remain up to date they have to reapply for recognition every five years.
Why does this matter? Well, a specialist is guaranteed to have a certain amount of skill, knowledge and competence. They can cope with complicated and unusual cases and are recognised to do so by their colleagues.
Specialists must accept referrals from other vets, which means that if your vet thinks your animal will benefit from seeing someone with experience in a certain field, they’ll arrange it. This doesn’t mean your vet is not good enough to sort the problem out, it means that they think it’s best for your animal to see someone with more detailed knowledge. In the same way as, in humans, you might be sent to see a specialist in shoulder surgery rather than a normal doctor.
If someone calls themself a ‘specialist’ but does not have a diploma then they are not a specialist. No matter how much experience they have, or how many other qualifications, they should not use this title. It may mean that your pet is not receiving the standard of care that they should, or that you may be paying above the odds for their treatment.
If you’re unsure about someone, you can always check on the RCVS website. They list all of the recognised specialists – anyone not on that list is not allowed to use the title. http://rcvs.org.uk/education/specialist-status/rcvs-list-of-specialists/
The title of specialist also matters to insurance companies. A group of insurance companies called the RSA Network (which includes More Than, John Lewis, Tesco, Argos, Homebase and M&S) have a list of preferred specialists. This means that your pet is referred to anyone except the people on their list then you may have to pay the first £200 of the bill on top of any other excess. If you are insured with any of these companies, double-check that the specialist you are seeing is on their list. You may choose to see someone else, but be prepared to pay a little more. Ask your insurer if you’re not sure.
So, in summary, specialists are very important in the treatment of complex and difficult conditions and will ensure that your pet gets the very best of care when they need it. If your pet needs one, make sure they’ve got the proper qualifications.
If you want more information about either of these topics, look at the links below.
by vet Rachel Thomas BVMS MRCVS