Royal college calls for surgeon title to be protected

Authors: Helen Jaques 

Publication date:  17 Jul 2012


The Royal College of Surgeons is seeking legal protection for the job title “surgeon” so that only people who have qualified as a medical doctor and undertaken postgraduate surgical training can use the title.

The college argues that patients can be confused by the different types of non-medical healthcare professionals who use the title “surgeon,” such as podiatric surgeons and aesthetic surgeons.

In some cases patients being treated in the NHS by a “surgeon” may wrongly assume that the person holds a medical degree and is a surgical specialist, it says, potentially undermining patients’ ability to give informed consent and their confidence in the treatment they are receiving.

A survey conducted by the market research company ICM on behalf of the college’s patient liaison group found that 95% of adults in Great Britain would expect an individual using the job title “surgeon” to have a medical degree.

Only a quarter (27%) of respondents would check a surgeon’s qualifications before having an operation, but nearly all (90%) said that they would be concerned if they discovered that their surgeon did not hold a medical degree.

A total of 92% of the random sample of 2034 adults surveyed agreed that the job title should be restricted by law.

The Royal College of Surgeons has recommended that only people who have undertaken the extensive medical training it takes to become a surgeon should be able to use this title.

Norman Williams, the college’s president, has said that the lack of clarity regarding job titles in the healthcare sector is “extremely worrying.” He said, “Patients undergoing treatment have a right to know the credentials of the person to whom they are entrusting their safety. The law can be very strict in protecting working titles, and we believe the same legal cover should be extended to the title surgeon.”

The patient liaison group plans to campaign for the job title of surgeon in healthcare to be protected by law, in the same manner that dentist is currently protected.

The Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists has stressed that podiatric surgeons make clear to patients that they are not registered medical practitioners. These practitioners undertake some 11 years of training and have to pass rigorous examinations in theory and clinical practice before qualifying, and are regulated by the Health Professions Council to ensure that they deliver high quality care to patients.

“We believe the issue is more general in nature and reflective of a poor understanding of job titles and roles within the modern NHS,” said a spokesperson for the society. “We are supportive of any process that attempts to improve patient education and clarification.”

The Department of Health has said that it expects employers to make sure that job titles do not mislead the public. “People may reasonably expect that someone who describes themselves as a surgeon is a registered doctor,” a spokesperson said. “We will always keep issues like this under review.”

Helen Jaques news reporter BMJ Careers

 hjaques@bmj.com

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