What would you do?

What would you do?

Feb 01, 2005

You and your staff members likely make tough ethical decisions every day. Yet only 43 percent of respondents to a recent survey by VetMedTeam.com, an online resource and team training center, say their practice teams discuss ethics. That means that potentially half of team members aren't receiving guidance. But ethics is a learned field, says Bernard Rollin, Ph.D., a veterinary ethicist at Colorado State University.

The key here is to receive some formal training in ethics, so you learn to distinguish good ethical reasoning from bad, Rollin says. Continuing education on ethical issues is one way to prepare for the situations you could see. You can also read about ethical issues veterinarians face, such as those found in Rollin's book Introduction to Veterinary Medical Ethics: Theory and Cases (Blackwell Publishing, 1999) and in the case study below, to sharpen your sensitivity to ethical issues and to open discussions with your team members.

Think ethical dilemmas aren't an issue for your practice? When asked if their practice policy was always to tell the client the truth—no matter the result—only 44 percent of respondents to the VedMedTeam.com survey said "yes." Forty-eight percent admitted there have been times they decided not to tell the client the truth, and 4 percent said their policy was to do and say whatever caused the least amount of trouble for the clinic.

Case study A client brings his unconscious Pekingese to his veterinarian, who assesses the dog is in a comma. Meanwhile the client brags to the clinician that the dog had been barking incessantly, so he hit it with a frying pan. The doctor refers the client to a veterinary school hospital, where the dog dies.

Later, the university's pathologist presents the case as a clinical and an ethics study to students at the veterinary school. One of the students works for the humane society and asks the pathologist for the client's name in order to report the man. An investigator later visits the client, who becomes angry that the doctors have broken confidentiality. He pays a visit to his local veterinarian, who then talks to the doctors at the veterinary school. The veterinary school personnel blame the student.

Discussion What issues do you see? Are veterinarians obligated to report animal abuse as pediatricians are required to report child abuse? Is it a breach of confidentiality? What do you think of the veterinary school doctors' and personnel's reactions? Was it fair to blame the student?

—By Jessica Harper, Managing Editor