Ethics: Our oath to advance medical knowledge creates demand for those services

Ethics: Our oath to advance medical knowledge creates demand for those services

Jul 01, 2006

Law, professional standards and personal principles, in addition to the diverse constituency the veterinary profession serves, are all driving tough ethical questions.

With duties to families and employees, to client and their animals, and to society and public health, is it any wonder practitioners face difficult ethical dilemmas every day?

Let's add one more potent ingredient to the mix: money.

Like it or not, most veterinarians in the United States practice medicine in for-profit companies. We may be a profession driving the highways of duty to animal welfare, society's benefit and public health, but capitalism fuels the engine. After-tax profit funds the resources we require to maintain the competent employees, equipment, facilities, pharmacies and other necessities for our professional journey.

We are a profession with financial burdens not matched by any other. We are a profession committed to advancement of medical knowledge and the precious investment of time and money required to maintain skill through life-long learning.

Raising the bar

We are a profession in desperate need of new talent, brilliant young men and women who can take our places and meet the demands of a global economy hungry for the wide variety of competencies to which veterinarians lay claim. How can the profession attract the best and brightest candidates when we protest that we are the "poorest" medical profession? How can we raise our economic standings in a highly inflationary medical/financial environment without charging more, without paying more taxes and without prudently mitigating the risks that any small-business employer faces?

And so the entire veterinary profession struggles with innumerable ethical dilemmas that bear important and ongoing debate. Society's gap between the "haves and have-nots" seems to be widening, and it places the financial burden of companion animal care squarely at our feet. Whether veterinarians deserve it or not, the spotlight of public perception is upon the profession, especially in the arena of affordability of health care for animals of indigent owners and the high price of rapidly escalating high-tech medical modalities.

Our oath to advance medical knowledge creates a demand for the services that spring from it. Capitalism drives competition to meet that demand. If veterinarians don't meet the consuming public's insatiable appetite, who will? Capitalism abhors a vacuum. And perhaps in the short term, it abhors ethics as well.

From a long-term perspective, all evidence suggests professional ethics are crucial to long-term survival. Profitability might not be as satisfying for those with love of immediate gratification. But the example of Aesop's tortoise truly applies for companies who view strong business ethics as crucial to long-term investment value return.

Ethics background

The Greek word "ethos" is synonymous with the Latin word "mores". The parallel derivation leads to one view that "ethics" constitutes the study of morals. But what does that mean? Let's go further to better understand the impact of "ethics" on the veterinarian's day-to-day activities as a human being, a citizen, an entrepreneur, employee, employer, parent, a professional and scientist.

In the Greek tradition, ethics is the study of the "good life". In the Judeo-Christian tradition, ethics is the study of righteousness before God. Further, Aristotle would have defined ethics as the study of the conditions necessary for man's happiness, while Kant's version would have the study of man's duties and responsibilities to one another. Although Kant's concepts about ethics more closely aligns with present societal views, law specifically sets forth the baseline of ethical duties and responsibilities for DVMs and other professionals.

Veterinarians always must remember that laws scripting professional conduct do not, and cannot, define aspirational aspects of ethical behavior. Recognize the difference between rules-based and principle-based behavior. When too many laws and standards rule the road of ethical behavior, people tend to creatively design alternative routes. They justify their unprincipled behavior by parsing words to interpret the law the way that favors them. A good example is the byzantine U.S. tax code that increasingly drives unethical, unprincipled behavior as shown in recent times by various illegal tax-shelter promoters and tax protesters.