AAVMC Ethics Policy: A Work in Progress

Ethics Committee Considering Input and Possible Refinements

For many years, public and private schools and colleges of veterinary medicine have collaborated with external partners like corporations, foundations, individual donors and others as they develop the financial and intellectual resources required to provide the high-quality educational, clinical, research and outreach programs that characterize AAVMC member institutions.  

The currency of these partnerships may exist in the form of a broad variety of gifts, contracts and other support.  These partnerships and the resources they provide play an essential role in institutional advancement and wellbeing and make legitimate and meaningful contributions to student learning, faculty inquiry and institutional outreach. In recent years, however, questions have been raised about how these gifts might affect the independence and integrity of recipient institutions. 

For example, when an animal health company provides a nutritional or pharmaceutical product free-of-charge to veterinary students, does it tacitly evoke a sense of bias, obligation or reciprocity in the minds of the students?  Is it possible that corporate funded research programs could alter scientifically accepted research protocols in a way that might affect the validity of the results?   Could a major gift from a private donor risk compromising admissions standards?  Perceptions regarding the potential of inappropriate bias exist, concerns have been expressed, and the issue has been broadly discussed throughout the academic community.

Universities generally have detailed policies and procedures in place designed to ensure their academic integrity and independence with respect to external gifts.  However, it seemed appropriate that AAVMC member institutions should also embrace a common set of ethical standards.  As a result, the AAVMC developed, “Guiding Principles and Considerations:  Ethical Interactions between Schools/Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and External Entities.” The policy document seeks to ensure an appropriate role for corporations or other external entities as partners in advancing academic veterinary medicine and establish safeguards to prevent undue influence that might risk compromising academic integrity and objectivity.  Schools can use the document or apply its principles to augment and enhance their own university policies.

The AAVMC Board of Directors broadly shared the document with external stakeholders following its development and approval in August 2011.  Since then, a variety of organizations have expressed an interest in discussing possible refinements to the policy in order to assure its maximum effectiveness, applicability and fairness for all parties involved with this complex issue. 

The AAVMC Ethics Committee, with input from deans and industry representatives, is reviewing the guidelines to determine whether they are comprehensive and relevant or overly stringent and in need of modification, as some survey respondents contend. 

In August 2012, the AAVMC held a meeting to solicit input on the policy guidelines from stakeholder groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Association of Corporate and Public Practice Veterinarians (AACPPV), and others.

The meeting objectives were:
  • To recognize and identify positive and informative ways that Colleges of Veterinary Medicine (CVMs) and industry can work together appropriately and partner to provide veterinary medical students with the best scientifically-based information for their education
  •  Identify how CVM veterinary medical students, and industry can build trust, respect, and appreciation for what they can contribute to the scientifically based veterinary medical education
  • Review AAVMC guiding principles and considerations document and, if needed, suggest any changes, that would reflect how appropriate partnerships with external entities could and would enhance the scientifically-based veterinary medical education
  • Develop a consensus statement of the outcome of this meeting that representatives AACPPV, AAVMC, AVMA, ASVMAE, and veterinary medical student organizations) can report back to their respective governing entities for consideration and adoption.
At that meeting, industry representatives stressed that ethics policies should not be so restrictive that they prevent companies from providing non-branded education and forming partnerships that enhance the leadership and business skills of faculty, administration and students.

The committee also discussed the results of a survey that the AAVMC conducted to assess which schools have their own policies and to help determine the usefulness of the AAVMC’s guidelines.  The survey found that:
  • Nineteen CVMs (53 percent) have no existing policy or ethics document.
  • Sixteen (44 percent) have an existing ethics document and one school has a policy in development.
  • Of those who have a policy document, 25 percent used the AAVMC’s guidelines to strengthen or enhance their own policies.
  • Fourteen CVMs (74 percent) plan to develop policies in the future, with guidance from the AAVMC’s document
Establishing a common approach that considers the integrity of our academic institutions as well as the interests of our stakeholders is a very complex undertaking,” said Dr. Gerhardt Schurig, immediate past-president of the AAVMC and current chair of its ethics committee.  “It’s important that our operating policies are strategically aligned with the highest standards of ethical practice as well as the practical realities of our modern operating environments. We want to safeguard integrity, but we don’t want to interfere with mutually beneficial and appropriate relationships.”

For example, Schurig explained, student interaction with corporations helps keep students informed regarding the latest drugs, treatments and products.  At the same time, students need to understand and develop thoughtful and balanced perspectives about the natural tendency of companies to promote their products and advance their commercial interests.  CVMs should continually assess, evaluate, and scrutinize any promotional outreach that could instill a sense of obligation or undue favoritism, according to Schurig.

Suggestions for future action that emerged during the 2012 meeting of internal and external stakeholders included the development of common talking points and a PowerPoint presentation that could assist all internal and external stakeholders as they pursue their academic and commercial endeavors.