Are Dentists Allowed to Call Themselves Doctors?

Lorna Jackson
By Lorna Jackson

Lorna has been the Editor of The Consulting Room (www.consultingroom.com), the UK's largest aesthetic information website, since 2003.


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 organizations 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 sanctions 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.”

Are Dentists allowed to call themselves Doctors?

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 that 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 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 is featured on the website, was also used by most of the 39,700 dentists in the UK.

General Dental Council (GDC)

They said the General Dental Council (GDC) and British Dental Association (BDA) allowed the use of the honorary title 'Dr'.

They provided correspondence that 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 recognized 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 recognized 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 the title was not a doctorate in line with a Ph.D., 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.

The ASA upheld the complaint

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?

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