Have you managed your conflicts?
Our veterinary profession is highly trusted and respected by the public. Because of this, we are often the spokespeople for agriculture. Our reputation for trustworthiness is a time-earned and deserved position that we must carefully protect. For, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "Glass, china, and reputation are easily cracked, and never mended well."
Conflicts of interest are a challenge for us all. They are common -- practically unavoidable. But if not handled correctly, conflicts of interest can be your downfall, or mine, or our profession's.
A conflict of interest has been defined as "a situation in which a person has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his/her official duties."1 A recent book on the subject lists some examples of conflicts of interest that I think are common in our profession: accepting benefits, using confidential information, self-dealing, and moonlighting in a competitive business. For instance, we get paid to give independent advice on a farm problem, but a conflict is presented when we make money on the recommended diagnostics, treatment, and prevention. To further the conflict, we may receive additional benefits from certain suppliers if we recommend their products. Is your advice truly independent if such is the case?
Whose interests am I serving when I make a particular decision? We are professionals, and sought after in part because clients, employers, colleagues, and the public value professionals and expect them to be objective and independent. If you are in doubt about a particular potential conflict, try the 'trust test'.1 Would relevant others trust my judgment if they knew the circumstances under which I am making this decision? If you think not, then you probably have a conflict of interest. If the answer is 'maybe', then again, you probably have a conflict of interest.
You may know that I have some experience in dealing with conflicts of interest. Some years ago, I was accused of using my position as Swine Center Director to influence the awarding of research grants. The claim was related to the fact that I own part of a pig farm, and therefore had a conflict of interest as Swine Center Director. The claim was investigated by university attorneys and promptly discharged. However, the apparent conflict was enough to warrant local, regional, and even national news -- very painful. "Apparent" is the operative word. Conflicts of interest are in the eye of the beholder, and if that beholder is 'relevant' to you, then you have a conflict of interest.
So, if conflicts of interest are all around us, how do we manage them? First and foremost, depending on the decision being made, you may want to withdraw yourself from the decision or advice being given. That is, remove yourself from the position of conflict if possible. If you can't withdraw, or don't feel a need to, then disclose the conflict to those affected by the decision. In my case, I needed to officially inform the university that I owned part of a pig farm and that involvement needed to be approved.
There is no carrot for managing apparent conflicts of interest cautiously and conservatively -- but you decrease the power of the stick if a conflict is alleged. More importantly, by managing apparent and real conflicts professionally, you are upholding the trust that your clients, employers, and the public place in you. I advise you to take an inventory of your interests, identify apparent and real conflicts of interest, and eliminate or manage them. You probably should have someone else do this with you, since he or she is more likely to see situations clearly.
We are swine veterinarians -- highly respected and trusted. It behooves all of us to uphold this expectation.
I appreciate your comments and questions.
-- Bob Morrison
612-625-9276 or BobM@UMN.Edu
1. McDonald, M., "Ethics and conflicts of interest," Bionews, Assoc. of Professional Biologists of Britsh Columbia, 1995; at: www.ethics.ubc.ca/mcdonald/conflict.html.