It’s difficult to entertain the thought of an appointment with a healthcare professional and not consider the significance of the myriad of letters you find following the name of the person attending to your needs.
We’re all familiar with MDs, DDSs, and EMTs. When you have something more than a typical case of “sniffles” you head to your ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) specialist. If you’re expecting a little bundle of joy, you probably will schedule an exam with your OB/GYN (Obstetrics/Gynecology). For a routine checkup, sometimes you see the NP (Nurse Practitioner), while other times you meet with the DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine). All those years of experience and training are seemingly readily distilled down to a relatively insignificant string of characters.
Veterinary medicine is no exception to this rule. Graduates of veterinary schools in the United States possess either a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) or VMD (Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris) degree. Veterinarians who graduate from overseas schools could be BVM, BVSc, MVSc, or even BMVS.
Veterinarians can be rather modest about their qualifications. It’s not unusual for owners to be on a first name basis with their pet’s doctor, skipping the typical formality afforded to our human counterparts. Our accomplishments may seen diminished, perhaps by virtue of the fact that our preferred position in the exam room is usually on the floor, rolling around with our patients.
Obviously, the letters following a medical professional’s name have no bearing on their ability to practice good medicine. Plenty of people possessing advanced degrees and impressive certifications are simultaneously terrible at their chosen career path. Likewise, many highly competent individuals who would have likely excelled at advanced academic training are perfectly content to avoid jumping through the hoops necessary to acquire a complex combination of letters preceding or trailing their surname.
I’m here to argue that when it comes to ensuring that the right person is providing care for your pets, there are times when the letters following a veterinarian’s name are exceedingly important.
Specifically, I’m referring to cases where animals should be afforded advance diagnostic and therapeutic care under the guidance of a board-certified veterinary specialist. These are individuals who possess the appropriate credentials indicating they are diplomates of the respective college governing their field.
I say this not to garner validation for the time, energy, and tears I’ve put into earning my title as a boarded veterinary oncologist. My motivation lies in the same place I’d like to believe all those who embarked on a career in the care and welfare of animals share: the desire to do the right thing for my patients.
Though I’m passionate about my campaign to advance awareness of veterinary specialty medicine, there are times when it’s surprisingly difficult to articulate the significance of a specialist’s qualifications. This does not result from an inability to provide accurate information supporting our role, but rather occurs secondary to what I would consider a “hot button” topic in veterinary medicine. Therefore, my language must always be chosen carefully.
Some specialists argue that general practitioners fail to offer referral for fear of losing the client because they are looking to keep the revenue associated with that pet’s care in their own pockets. Specialists feel they are better equipped, trained, etc. to manage the case and that general practitioners do not recognize their abilities.
General practitioners argue that referrals are offered but refused by owners because specialists are too expensive, and they can manage cases equally as well as another doctor without the unnecessary extras afforded by the specialist mentality.
No matter the opinion, the days of veterinarians being the “James Herriot Jack-of-All-Trades” kind of doctor are long gone. The idea that one person is best trained in all aspects of medicine and surgery in all species is outdated and downright dangerous.
We currently possess the ability to treat our animal patients on par with how we treat humans and should offer owners every opportunity to do so when feasible. I am aware that not every owner can afford to “do it all” for their pets, but as many as possible should be given the opportunity to hear the options from the appropriately credentialed doctor.
I’m proud of all the letters that follow my name. They represent innumerable hours and days spent studying, practicing, and learning how to be the best veterinarian, oncologist, writer, and, ultimately, person I can be.
Those letters were costly, not only in the literal sense of the word when my student loan payment is automatically drawn from my account, but in a figurative sense, where time spent studying, reading, writing, and treating patients took away from time spent with friends and family.
Those letters push me to want to be a better veterinary oncologist and to keep current on newer options for treating cancer in pets so I can offer the most advance diagnostic and therapeutic plans for the patients I meet. They force me to never settle for the status quo or the “cookbook” option anyone can look up in a textbook.
You could argue that anyone with a veterinary degree feels the same way about the significance of his or her own letters, but reality tells me a disparity exists.
So I will continue to promote specialty medicine, even when it feels as though the effort isn’t apparently succeeding. And I will continue to urge owners to investigate a bit more into just what the letters after their doctor’s name truly mean.
Dr. Joanne Intile, DVM, DACVIM