Have you ever wondered what to do if you aren’t happy with the actions of your vet? Most people realise that vets have codes of conduct and ethics that they need to adhere to, but how does this work in practice? What happens to a vet if they stray from the correct professional path?
Vets are a “self regulating” profession, like many other professions such as doctors, lawyers and dentists. The phrase “self regulating” does not fit well with twenty first century concepts of fairness and objective justice. It sounds as if vets are allowed to just get on with their own thing, putting their own interests first. After all, how can someone be expected to regulate themselves as firmly as they would be if controlled by an independent third party?
The historical basis behind self regulation is the concept that the professions operate in a market where the consumer can never have full and equal knowledge with the professional. Whereas anyone can see if a grocery product is adequate, if your doctor tells you that some complex test is needed, or your dentist tells you that you need a filling, or your vet tells you that your dog needs an MRI scan, how can you judge if the advice is correct? There’s an inherent imbalance in information and knowledge between the professional and the customer which makes it difficult for consumers to shop around in the same way as they can in other free market situations. To address this imbalance in the market place, governments need to have a system that forces the professions to adhere to certain standards. And the only people who know enough about a specific profession, in order to be able to understand what’s going on, are members of that profession. Hence the concept of “self regulation”.
The government has created legislation which delegates the legal authority for controlling a profession from the state civil service to the self-regulating professional body. This authority includes aspects such as setting standards for who may enter the profession, setting standards of practice, and creating rules for when and how members may be removed from the profession.
Self regulation also includes a complaints and discipline system which allows members of the public to raise concerns about services that a professional provides to them, as well as providing a process to investigate and, if necessary, discipline any member of a profession who fails to meet professional standards of practice. This system is designed to protect the public from incompetent or unethical practitioners.
In recent years, there have been concerns that there may be too much “self” in the self regulating professions. If a doctor/dentist/vet misbehaves, is it fair that they should be judged by a panel of doctors/dentists/vets? Surely there’s a risk of people “looking after their own” – deciding in favour of the professional rather than the public interest? As a response to these concerns, there has been an increasing tendency to include lay people on the disciplinary councils of professional bodies.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) is the regulating professional body for vets and vet nurses in the UK, with the stated aim “to safeguard the health and welfare of animals under veterinary care, protect the interests of those dependent on animals and assure public health.”
Many people seem to mistakenly believe that the RCVS is there “to look after vets”, and that its role is to promote the profession in some way. There’s no doubt that its role is complex: yes, it does need to help to ensure that the veterinary profession is healthy and well-organised. But its job is not to look after vets: rather, its job is to look after animals and members of the public.
Pet owners who have had complaints about their own vets may find this difficult to believe: when a grievance is not dealt with severely enough, it’s easy to blame the RCVS rather than other complicating factors.
However, a recent development at the RCVS may begin to convince more pet owners about the objectivity of the system: the new chief executive and secretary of the RCVS is a man with a track record of being a champion for the consumer. Nick Stace, who takes up his post on 3rd September, was formerly the Chief Executive Officer for CHOICE, Australia’s equivalent of the consumer group Which. Nick’s role has been described as “leading the College into a new phase of modernisation and development”.
If the general public has felt left out of veterinary regulatory activities in the past, it looks like this may be about to change.