The changes to the Veterinary Surgeons Act (and with that the proposed Practice Standards Scheme) have been presented as the modernisation of the Veterinary profession and a way of bringing greater public understanding to the process by which vets are regulated and made accountable. Would that it were so.
The fact that veterinarians will remain professionally unaccountable for their clinical practice has to cast serious doubt on their right to consider that they actually belong to a ‘profession’. One of the criteria that establishes ‘professional’ status has to be accountability to a regulating body for the way in which the knowledge specific to that profession is used. At present, the only place vets can be held accountability for their clinical actions is through the civil courts; a state of affairs that would be thought inconceivable for any other medical/care-based profession.
This complete lack of professional accountability has deep ramifications; vets who are negligent in their direct actions are entirely free of any professional sanction, but so are practices and organisations that simply fail to follow best practice. There is, for instance, no way of making a vet accountable for ignoring infection control practices outside of a civil suit, and it is entirely unclear that the new practice standards scheme will change this in the least. Such failure falls outside of the disciplinary remit of the RCVS and no change to this principle is made in the new Act.
In establishing a process and principle of professional accountability a profession also makes explicit its duty of care. At present, although vets are trained to treat animals, they are actually under no professional duty to do so (unless such a failure can be considered disgraceful professional misconduct), nor are they under any obligation to consider the impact of their actions on the owners of pets, the public at large or the public standing of their own profession.
Those of us outside of the veterinary profession who have had cause to rue the statutes empowering the RCVS in its regulation of vets can see little in the new proposals to commend themselves. While the practice standards scheme is welcome, it falls far short of that which is needed to bring the veterinary profession fully into the 21st century.
Jill Moss, Mark Dosher
The following response was made
J. C. Hern, the RCVS Registrar, comments:
Ms Moss and Mr Dosher have raised a number of serious concerns about the ability of the veterinary profession to regulate itself, which are based on misunder-standings. All of the bodies which regulate professions, whether veterinary, medical or otherwise, have a limited and parallel jurisdiction to that of the civil courts. Negligence is a matter for the civil courts and regulatory bodies are not in a position to usurp this.
The business of regulatory bodies is professional misconduct, which in legal terms is not the same thing, although there is an overlap if the negligence is very serious. This can be seen from the reports of the Disciplinary Committee, which are on the RCVS web-site at www.rcvs.org.uk
The current Guide to Professional Conduct, also on the RCVS website, already sets out a veterinary surgeon's responsibilities towards patients, clients, the general public and professional col-leagues, and makes clear that accessibility, accountability and transparency are fun-damental to the regulation of the veterinary profession. Indeed, all veterinary surgeons on admission to the profession make a declaration that their 'constant endeavour will be to ensure the welfare of the animals committed to my care'.
The new RCVS Practice Standards Scheme is designed to build on these existing responsibilities and to address the need to regulate the delivery of veterinary services. Practice standards nre not limited to premises and equipment and will extend to clinical issues. As the standards are developed and adopted by the profession they will provide a proactive means of regulation, by means of advice and inspections, to supplement the limited powers under the current legislation to react when things go wrong.
This is very much in line with the expectations of a modern regulator. It should also be pointed out that no amount of standards and monitoring will eliminate the inevitable risks that arise with many medical treatments and surgical procedures. Sadly, no regulator can ensure a 'zero-risk' environment.
J. C. Hem, Registrar, RCVS, Belgravia House, 62-64 Horseferry Road, London SWIP2AF