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Don’t forget nursing’s legacy

I was keenly interested in the editor’s column about the Veterinary Nurse Initiative and in Liz Hughston’s comments. I know this will be an unpopular opinion, but I’m firmly in support of the initiative and RVTs.

Certainly the law is clear. No one “owns” these words, but it’s naïve (or extremely cynical) to proceed as if they have no historical meaning or association. We all know what a “nurse” is, and the word brings powerful images with it for good reason. Proponents of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative would be well-advised to recognize the concern nurses have over their title and to acknowledge the degree to which veterinarians share that concern.

The term “veterinarian” also describes an occupation. It could be said that we don’t “own” it, but if some other profession that hasn’t graduated from an accredited veterinary school wanted to use it, would veterinarians object? Instead, as stewards of the profession, veterinarians work to ensure that the term applies to people who have been professionally trained and licensed to serve the public. This is why veterinarians even bothered to haggle over “veterinary” dentists and “veterinary” chiropractors — to establish the limits of what work they perform.

It’s an ongoing challenge, of course, but this is why professional titles and licensure were established and serve to protect the public from being defrauded by whoever decided to call themselves a vet that day. If veterinarians in general don’t believe that words belong to professions, then efforts to maintain the boundaries of our own profession appear hypocritical.

Similarly, nurses are engaging in their own professional stewardship. Of course, the word “nurse” can apply to any number of situations not specific to human medicine, i.e. “They nursed those puppies back to health.” But the occupation of professional nursing, which most of us think of when someone says “nurse,” reflects a legacy inspired by historical figures such as Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. Nursing has earned its reputation as a profession over hundreds of years; it’s not something that happened overnight or just by calling themselves “nurses.” Rather, they gained respect, sometimes over the objections of their contemporary medical doctors, overcoming a history of professional and often sexist opposition. This history is why nurses don’t want “just anyone” to call themselves a nurse.

That said, as a veterinarian I respect my RVTs and I don’t believe they want the title of nurse for vain reasons. I couldn’t do my job without them.

I have donated to the Veterinary Nurse Initiative and agree with its goals, but it might be worthwhile to also promote the RVT profession’s unique history. Perhaps it’s the lack of the same storied history that causes some people to feel that the title of RVT isn’t as weighty without adding “nurse.” If the term can’t be owned and has no historic meaning, then how could it be something to seek after? In that case, the title is semantic and nothing more.

On the contrary, it seems that proponents of the Veterinary Nurse Initiative are tacitly admitting that the word “nurse” carries greater significance even while dismissing nurses’ attempts to retain it. That significance exists because of the historical contributions of professional nurses.

I suggest that if the stories of RVTs and their history were told, there is a chance to win allies and build on the legacy of RVTs and so prove that it’s a worthy profession in its own right. At the very least, showing some respect for the concerns of professional nurses and making an effort to win them over is a better approach than to dismiss them out of hand.

The editor’s position, while legally accurate, inspires pointless acrimony and stokes the opposition. This is counterproductive wherever laws need to change and practice acts may have to be adjusted to reflect the new title.

In the end, because I’m certain that they have earned it, as have many compassionate and dedicated RVTs caring for their patients every day, I am happy to refer to my RVTs as nurses. But let’s be honest about why that word conveys respect.

Dr. Robert Miller practices in Tulsa, Oklahoma.