… but remains voluntary
Lynne Hill, RCVS President at the Practice Standards Scheme public launch.
THE ROYAL College of Veterinary Surgeons proudly launched its own accreditation scheme on Monday of this week, in the form of the Practice Standards Scheme, which the RCVS says will "promote and maintain the highest standards of veterinary care."
However, the scheme has already been criticised by animal health campaigners as not going far enough, because it remains voluntary – no veterinary practice is compelled to accept ‘best practice’ standards as laid down in the Scheme.
All veterinary surgeons practising in the UK are regulated by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, but up until recently there has been no broad-based accreditation of the practices that many of them own or work for.
This changed - according to the RCVS’s press release - with the launch of the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme, a voluntary accreditation programme for veterinary practices in the UK.
Through setting standards and carrying out regular inspections, the Scheme aims to promote and maintain the highest standards of veterinary care. It offers peace of mind to clients of accredited practices and more informed choice to the animal-owning public.
The Scheme was launched to the veterinary profession in January 2005 and approximately 50% of the UK’s 3,801 veterinary premises now fall under its ambit. The geographical distribution of these practices mirrors that of practices at large.
Up until relatively recently, the structure of veterinary practice in the UK meant that by regulating individual veterinary surgeons, the RCVS effectively regulated practices too.
But trends in practice ownership have changed. For example, an increase in the number of corporate practices means there will be some that are neither owned nor managed by veterinary surgeons. This, coupled with the expansion of the veterinary team to include greater roles for veterinary nurses and lay practice staff, means that to regulate veterinary surgeons alone is no longer appropriate.
In addition, there is a general trend amongst consumers to demand greater reassurance. According to independent pet owner market research commissioned by the RCVS in November 2005, there is a public expectation that veterinary practices have been subject to regulation for some time. But this does not undermine the fact that, in general, owners trust their vets and hold them in high esteem.
"The RCVS is here to promote and sustain public confidence in veterinary medicine and the Practice Standards Scheme is critical in meeting this objective," explained Mrs Lynne Hill MRCVS, RCVS President and Chairman of the Practice Standards Scheme Working Group at Monday’s public launch of the scheme.
"The regulatory function of the RCVS has always meant that users of veterinary services could be assured that their veterinary surgeon was properly qualified and fit to practise but, for the first time, the Scheme offers reassurance that accredited practice premises also meet stringent standards.
"The time is now right to make the public aware of RCVS accreditation. We are not saying that those practices not yet accredited are bad practices. But accreditation provides official recognition of the high standards that already exist within UK veterinary practice. If a member of the public wants peace of mind that their practice has been regularly inspected, they should look for the RCVS accreditation logo," stresses Mrs Hill.
To become accredited, practices volunteer for rigorous inspection every four years. Those which pass the inspection will have met a range of standards. Minimum standards include hygiene, 24-hour emergency cover, staff training, certain types of equipment and cost estimation procedures.
More specific criteria apply for practices accredited at different levels. Accredited practices also undergo spot-checks to ensure standards are maintained between inspections.
The Scheme is currently voluntary but it is hoped that, under a new Veterinary Surgeons Act – the legislation that sets the regulatory obligations of the RCVS - it will become mandatory. However, despite stating that the existing 1966 Act is to be overhauled, the Government have not set a timetable for a new Act to be implemented.
Reactions to the PSS varied. Speaking at the public launch of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Practice Standards Scheme Claire Bessant, Chief Executive of the Feline Advisory Bureau, emphasised how RCVS accreditation will allow owners to make an informed choice about the standard of their pets’ veterinary care.
She said: "Based on our research and extensive contact with cat owners, I believe that this accreditation Scheme addresses many issues of concern - including queries that pet owners probably didn’t even think they could raise. Owners can be reassured that an RCVS Accredited Practice has been inspected and reached certain standards. It gives them an understanding of practice facilities and a point of reference for finding out more."
Ms Bessant continued: "Owners have little idea of what goes on behind the scenes in a practice or what should be standard veterinary care. They want a local practice where they will get compassionate, respectful, well informed and competently delivered treatment for a fee they can understand. The Scheme will cover many of these areas and foster a great understanding of practice for clients."
The scheme was also welcomed by the Kennel Club. Phil Buckley, Spokesperson for the Kennel Club said: "We really see this initiative as good news for dog owners, as the RCVS can now, for the first time, offer reassurance that those practice premises which it accredits as part of the Practice Standards Scheme meet stringent standards. Whilst the Scheme is a voluntary initiative to accredit veterinary practices in the UK, much like the Kennel Club's Accredited Breeder Scheme, through setting standards and carrying out regular inspections, the Scheme aims to promote and maintain the highest standards of veterinary care.
"To become accredited, practices volunteer for inspection every four years and will have met a range of minimum standards including hygiene, 24-hour emergency cover, staff training, certain types of equipment and cost estimation procedures. They may also be subject to spot-checks between inspections, which should provide peace of mind for the dog owner. For further peace of mind, people should look for the RCVS accredited practice logo, which indicates that the practice has passed an independent inspection."
Phil concluded, "Some negative reports have appeared about vets in the canine media over the last few years, and sometimes for good reason. We believe that the RCVS should be applauded for the introduction of this initiative, which will do much to address these problems and mean high standards of care for pets and therefore peace of mind for pet owners. Our Accredited Breeder Scheme is working in a similar way!"
However, reaction to the Scheme was more muted from Jill Moss, Founder of the Bella Moss Foundation, the independent group that exists to raise awareness of the growing number of cases of MRSA in pets. The Foundation has fought for higher standards of hygiene within veterinary practices and feels that adoption of such ‘best practice’ standards should be mandatory, not voluntary.
Jill Moss, who attended the launch on Monday, told OUR DOGS: "The Bella Moss Foundation is always supportive of the RCVS’s efforts to improve standards of practice. We acknowledge that there are issues with the Practice Standards Scheme as it is implemented, but our main concern is that the Government set a schedule to bring the changes to the Veterinary Surgeons Act before the next election. Without this the PSS will remain a voluntary programme which can be ignored by vets that do not wish to have their practice examined."
Members of the profession and the general public can check if practices are accredited, or search for an accredited practice, at www.findavet.org.uk
Further information about the Scheme is available by visiting www.rcvs.org.uk/practicestandards, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 020 7202 0767
Claire Bessant of FAB, and with cat 'Mugo' (photo@ Salisbury Herald)