There are different levels of veterinary practice in much the same way as there are different levels of medical care for people. Your Doctor would refer you to a consultant in a hospital for any investigations or surgery and you would not expect them to treat you for complex diseases. In the same way, general practitioners handle most of the routine healthcare for dogs and cats, but if the treatment is outside their level of expertise, or they need help making a diagnosis, they may suggest referral. Sometimes, an owner feels that they would like a second opinion before embarking on expensive treatment or where the diagnosis is not clear.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons specifies what qualifications and extra training a vet must have to call themselves a Specialist. Vets in general practice who have done self directed learning can take an exam documenting their self-improvement and experience – this is called a ‘Certificate’ in a subject area and the letters after their name would show that they have taken this exam. For example the ‘CertAVP’ means that the vet has a Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice. However to become a Specialist, the vet has to train directly under other Specialists focussing 100% of their time on their area of specialism for a minimum of 3 years and this period is usually called a Residency. They will do between 3 to 5 years training in their discipline, and publish clinical research in order to be eligible to take Board examinations to become a Diplomate. This is the highest level of expertise that a vet can attain in the UK. The letters after their name will start with a ‘Dip’ or ‘D’ (eg DSAM means Diploma in Small Animal Medicine). This then entitles the vet to call themselves a Veterinary Specialist and the vet will be able to apply to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to be registered as a RCVS Recognised Specialist in their field. This is a peer reviewed process – they also have to reaccredit this status every 5 years, demonstrating that they are still up to date and active in their field. There is currently no requirement to reaccredit the Certificate, as that is not a Specialist level qualification.
Concerns you might have:
Don’t be worried about your relationship with your vet. They will not be offended if you ask if they think you should go to a specialist.
The Specialist will always report in detail to your referring veterinary surgeon, so you won’t end up with complicated records for your pet in two places.
Generally, although you will have to travel to see the Specialist, most centres try to do as much of the follow up care as they can through your own vet, especially if you have had to travel a long distance to get there.
Appointments with a Specialist are generally much longer than at first opinion practices – you will have a lot of time to ask about the condition, the tests and what the outcome is likely to be. The Specialist will take time to explain in detail what will be done and how much it will cost.
Remember a Certificate holder, CertAVP or Advanced Practitioner is not a Specialist. They are accredited as having done extra study in an area, but will not be at ‘consultant’ level like you would expect to find in a human hospital.
www.rcvs.org.uk Click on Find a Vet for information on Specialist qualifications and to find Specialists. This page also gives information on seeking a second opinion, or seeking referral to a Specialist.
www.ebvs.org This website links to all the European Specialist Colleges and also lists all the Specialists in all the disciplines throughout Europe. You can click on the links to the Specialist Colleges and find out more about what training European Specialists have to do to gain their Diploma.
www.yourvetspecialist.org This link takes you to the British College of Veterinary Specialists. This gives information on how to determine if the vet you are seeing is a Specialist or is residency trained (ie eligible to become a Specialist)