Are Dentists allowed to call themselves Doctors? No, say the ASA.

Posted on the 22 January 2013 at 10:06

Dentists have long been accustomed to being able to call themselves by the title Dr. or Doctor, something which their own regulator permits; but the Advertising Standards Authority continues to chastise those who do so in advertising materials as they believe the title is misleading.

In a recent blog entitled Surgeon, Doctor, Dentist - are they really who they say they are?, we looked at the use of titles within the medical profession and what effect this has on the public’s perception of the skills and qualifications of an individual who is treating them, along with the desire by some industry organisations to protect the use of certain titles.

This blog also covered the case of dentist John Stowell from Woodvale Clinic who had used the title Dr. in magazine adverts for facial aesthetics services and faced sanction from the ASA in 2009.

This is something which is felt to be common practice in the UK as an honorary title bestowed upon dentists; particularly in light of the enlargement of the European Union and cross-border practicing where dentists from other countries in Europe are permitted to refer to themselves as doctors.

The General Dental Council (GDC), the regulators of dentists and dental best practice in the UK do not themselves oppose the use of the title doctor, by dentists, in fact they state; “the GDC does not prohibit the use of the title ‘Doctor' as a courtesy title in the case of dentists.”

Yet they do note that; “Dentists who choose to use the title must ensure that it is not used in a way which could mislead the public, for example by giving the impression that the dentist is a registered medical practitioner if they are not.” And it is this final point which is being upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when complaints are raised in connection with adverts for dentists and their services which refer to the practitioner using the doctor title.

The ASA was again investigating John Stowell and Woodvale Clinic for the very same transgression with a recent adjudication published in December 2012, detailed as follows:




Claims on www.woodvaleclinic.com/qual.htm stated: "Welcome to the Woodvale Clinic Dr. John W. Stowell L.D.S R.C.S. (Eng) B.D.S F.D.S R.C.S (Edin) G.D.C. Registered Specialist in Oral Surgery".

The complainant challenged whether the use of the term "Dr" was misleading, because it implied that the practitioner, a dentist, held a general medical qualification.

Woodvale Clinic said the honorary title 'Dr', which featured on the website, was also used by most of the 39,700 dentists in the UK.

They said the General Dental Council (GDC) and British Dental Association (BDA) allowed the use of the honorary title 'Dr'. They provided correspondence which showed that the Royal College of Surgeons and Care Quality Commission also used the title 'Dr' when liaising with the advertiser.

They said they had consulted with a number of colleagues, who all considered that the ASA was out of step on the issue.

They stated that the BDA was a responsible body, which was the main representative body of dentists in the UK, as well as the main negotiating body for dentists in the UK and the trade union. They said the GDC also represented patients by registering and disciplining dentists. They therefore considered that the BDA and GDC were very important in showing the current thinking and further supported the position that 'Dr' was a recognised title used by the dental profession. They felt that, because the BDA considered it acceptable for dentists to use the honorary title 'Dr', it did not act to the detriment of patients and was not misleading.

They understood that 'Dr' was an internationally recognised title used by dentists globally and they were not aware of any countries which did not allow dentists to use the title 'Dr'. They stated that many dentists who had trained and qualified abroad had a dental degree which allowed the title 'Dr', such as DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery). They stated that title was not a doctorate in line with a PhD, but was a title conferred by that degree.

They added that the website specifically stated that Dr. John W. Stowell was a registered Dental and Oral Surgeon (Specialist List inclusion) and listed his dental degrees. They stated that if he were a medical doctor, then that would have been made clear in the list of qualifications, as he would have listed the relevant degree, such as MB, BS or MD. They provided several examples of randomly selected websites for other dentists in the local area which they noted all used the honorary title 'Dr'.

The ASA upheld the complaint and noted that they understood that the honorary title 'Dr' was widely used by dentists. They noted that the claims featured in the "Qualifications" section of the website and stated that the practitioner was a "Registered Specialist in Surgical Dentistry and Oral Surgery". They understood that, since 1995, the GDC had allowed dentists to use 'Dr' as a courtesy title, providing they did not otherwise imply that they were qualified to carry out medical procedures.

They considered, however, that the title 'Dr' before a practitioner's name should not be used in adverts unless the practitioner held a general medical qualification, a relevant PhD or doctorate (of sufficient length and intensity) or unless the similarities and differences between the practitioner's qualifications and medical qualifications were explained in detail in the advert.

They noted from the list of qualifications included in the website that the practitioner was not medically qualified and did not hold a relevant PhD or doctorate qualification. They also considered that the website did not explain the differences between the practitioner's qualifications and medical qualifications. They therefore concluded that the use of "Dr" in the ad was likely to mislead, and the claim must not appear again in its current form.




It would seem that John Stowell is perhaps unfortunate that someone keeps pointing out his ‘offences’ to the ASA when all around him are busy doing the same. But, if you’re a dentist, it would seem that you must tread very carefully when referring to yourself using the title ‘Dr.’ both in advertisements and on your own website if you want to avoid the knock on the door from the ASA.

We’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the ASA outdated or misguided in its thinking? Would the public really be misled by a dentist calling himself Dr. Smith, for example? Or are they correct and dentists should not be permitted to refer to themselves as doctors when they are not medical doctors?

Feel free to comment below and join the debate.

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Blog Comment(s) [12]

I believe dentist Tariq Idris uses the title Dr in a misleading way online. He sometimes refers to himself as DDS (certified doctor of dentistry) although his degree is BDS. I have a close friend who he treated and went well beyond his capabilities as a dentist causing serious damage to her sinus. This has been invesigated by the GDC and his practice has been found to be impaired. He now has to work under various conditions. However he continues to advertise his services online using "celebrity " patients and misleading titles to exaggerate his abilities. My friend has complained to the GDC but they are not prepared to investigate him further.

susan joyce

Hi, thank you for your comments. I cannot of course comment on what you have said about this particular dentist or confirm it to be truthful, but if you believe that this dentist is advertising in a misleading fashion, I would recommend that you use the online reporting system available through the Advertising Standards Association website - www.asa.org.uk. Although interested in the case of potential poor practice, the GDC is not capable of policing any advertising or promotion performed by their members, however the ASA can and will investigate, ajudicate, request that the advertising is no longer performed in the misleading manner if it is found to be so and if repeated offences take place they have further sactions that they can impose. This would be the route I would take if you can evidence that the dentist is misleading potential patients through his advertising. Any further issues relating to his actual practicing skills would be a matter again for the GDC.

Lorna Jackson | http://www.consultingroom.com

I think there is already public confusion about medical doctor and Ph.D. and perhaps someone back in the mists of time should have invented different pre-nominals to avoid the confusion. The problem with dentists calling themselves Dr is where do you draw the line? Should ophthalmologists be called Dr? Why are highly skilled surgeons only a Mr? In a final piece of irony, all NHS GPs and all dentists call me Mr when they know full well that actually I am a university professor with a Ph.D., which some would say is a "real Dr" and others would say I should be called Prof. I shall leave the reasons why they prefer to call me Mr for you to decide.

John Beattie

What I find most amusing is the "misleading" accusation in all of this furore.
Consider:
A person attends a dental surgery presumably to receive dentistry. As long as this is clear, it is difficult to see how a patient going to see Dr Smith the dentist might come to be confused as to why they are there. If he is going because he has toothache then as long as the dentist is qualified to deal the problem what difference would it make to the patient even if Dr Smith actually also happened to have a Medical degree?

In addition If a dentist has PhD in dental education (and no one is arguing with them using the title there) That is a purely academic research based achievement which will be highly unlikely to allow the dentist to deliver better clinical care to his or her patients. You could argue that it is even more misleading to allow this dentist to use the title Dr and not others.

The issue with optometrists, Physios etc using the title and asking where you draw the line is not so much in the length of training (both Medical and Dental degrees are of similar length and intensity). What sparked the "call me Dr campaign" amongst UK dentists 20 years ago (after a century of content use of the title MR as conferred upon them by their licentiate from the Royal College of Surgeons) was mainly the fact the Dentists in all other countries had always used the title. Increasing globalisation meant that more UK patients were likely to encounter foreign trained dentists using the title Dr, possibly genuinely misleading patients that UK dentists were less highly qualified than their foreign and particularly EU based counterparts.

If Optometrists also use the title Dr in other countries (I've no idea, perhaps they do ) then yes, that may well be a legitimate reason to allow UK Optometrists, Pharmacists etc to do the same.

I cant help felling that much of this derives from small-mindedness on the part of those who object. As far as misleading is concerned, I think we need to credit potential dental patients with a little intelligence. No one would approach a lecturer holding a PhD in astrophysics expecting a prescription for antibiotics for a chest infection. And even if they did, surely we can expect our professor to point our mistaken patient to his GP?

Ellie Bergin

Mr idris has now been investigated by the GDC for mis-use of the titles 'certified doctor of dental surgery' and DDS; and have issued him with a reprimand. This was in addition to the previous sanctions 2008 a reprimand following a police caution for using his dead mother's name to avoid speeding points: 2009 a warning letter re misleading publicity and 2012 conditions for clinical failings. I wonder if the names he displays on his 'celebrity ' patient list are aware of his misconduct!! I would have thought patient lists were confidential, and not a means of advertising his services.

Edwina Robbins

It was not until July 1912 that London's Royal College of Physicians removed from its relevant bylaw the stipulation that no diplomate "shall assume the title of Doctor'
This,for the first time, allowed those with MB BS or LRCP to call themselves Doctor. Until then, only those with an MD were allowed to do so. It took dentists a long time to catch up!

Dr Jeremy Ludford BDS LDSRCS

As I understand it a dentist is normally conferred with a BDS which is a Bachelor
degree. I also have a Bachelors degree in a different discipline,should I also be entitled to call myself ,doctor?

Kenneth Stanton

Should a general medical practitioner be entitled to use the title doctor given that he/she will generally only possess bachelors degrees in medicine and surgery.
Theirs is a courtesy title used in much the same way that some dentists choose to use the title doctor. Personally, during my practising career I always preferred to be known as Mr!

Stephen Scott

It is common knowledge the the GDC are very lenient when it comes to dentists stepping outside of they're scope plus the fact that dentists are commonly regarded as failed doctors so it makes sense for the GDC and the BDA to uphold this rather 'important' entitlement to the 'old boys establishment'. They do not have a PHD so therefore they do not deserve the title 'Dr', hopefully we will see this ruling overturned when the GDC are removed

A.Ackhbar

One has to remember that training is different in other countries. Yes, in the UK students would go straight on after 'A' Levels to either medical or dental school - so they gain a bachelors degree following this.

In the USA, medial and dental education is postgraduate, so students leave high school and then go on a do a bachelors degree and then go onto medical or dental school, so they then graduate with either a DDS, DDM or MD degree, which confers the title of doctor, rather than a BDS.

However, in the US, everyone seems to be called doctor anyway, even vets who graduate with a DVM.

S.Webster

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I always thought dentists were called Mr because they are surgeons. Surgical consultants in hospital are called Mr. It is a promotion from a physician.

Savannah, Member Since 09 July 2016

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Also, and I may be a little old fashioned here, I always thought that if the title Dr is used (as in Jeremy Ludford's case) then the letters behind the name are omitted. It is one or the other. If you want to show your degrees you do not use the title.

Savannah, Member Since 09 July 2016