Thought experiment: Financial Conflicts of Interest

Believe it or not, many people see no problem with financial conflicts of interest in health care. People who receive payments say they are only doing the same job they would do otherwise, except with more resources. This, they say, enables them to provide better health care. People who make the payments will claim that they are only trying to ensure that their beneficial products are able to improve the lives of as many consumers as possible. Even patients defend conflicts, saying they don’t mind their doctors making a few extra dollars in order to provide efficient, state-of-the-art service. Patients see these financial ties as a way to ensure groundbreaking treatments reach consumers.

Slippery Slope

A rather beautiful example of a slippery slope.

I’m not a doctor, but there are analogies for me. If we look at financial ties in another industry, it may be easier to see the problem. In education, the stakes are lower, but some parallels to the medical industry remain. I will begin with actual practices and then ask you to imagine further practices that parallel the medical industry.

First, instructors are commonly asked to review books for publishers seeking feedback on manuscripts or new textbooks. This gives the publisher an opportunity to get feedback from potential customers while also enabling instructors to provide input to publishers. Instructors get better books, and publishers are able to improve both their products and their marketing. The instructor is, of course, paid a small honorarium for the time invested in reading and reviewing the book.

Second, once instructors have given feedback, publishers may invite them to be more involved in the production of the textbook. They may be asked to write an instructor’s manual to accompany the text or participate in developing workbooks or online supporting materials for students. (Disclosure: I know that these first two items are practiced because I have reviewed textbooks and written an instructor’s manual for pay.) Instructors, of course, know the most about what instructors need and how students may use various materials. Improving the product benefits publishers, instructors, and students.

Now, imagine that an instructor sees an improvement in students’ success rates and general aptitude. The instructor begins to collect data and may even present at a teaching and learning conference on how these materials have benefited students. A publisher might (I don’t know of this happening in real life) offer to pay the instructor to give the same presentation at additional conferences. On the surface, this does not seem harmful. After all, the students really did improve using these materials, and the presentation was not developed with the aim of getting payouts from the publisher. Certainly, no students will be harmed by these presentations.

Finally, imagine this instructor begins to accept regular invitations from the publisher to present on the benefits of the products and encourages others to adopt the same materials for their classes. The instructor notes that most of her or his students are now earning A’s and B’s when the class averages were usually a B or C before the materials were adopted. To reward the instructor for this amazing success, the publisher begins to pay the instructor $100 for each A awarded and $80 for each B awarded. Soon, this instructor is widely hailed for improving student success and completion rates at a college that struggles with generally high rates of failure and incompletion.

Now, these payments to the instructor come to the attention of the student newspaper, which publishes the amounts paid to the instructor and the increase in high grades in the classes. The public is outraged, but enrollments in the class continue to increase. The instructor counters that no one has shown that even one student who received an A did not deserve an A. Further, the instructor says that the improvements in student success were documented even before the payments began. The publisher responds by saying that the materials it produces are of the highest quality and that it is proud of the success rates of the students using the products. Without the relationship between the publisher and instructor, fewer students would have benefited from these outstanding educational materials and that would be a real tragedy.

Questions to consider: 1. Did students really benefit from the relationship? 2. Were cheaper alternative materials available that were equally beneficial? 3. Is it possible that students received inflated grades, even if proving it so is impossible? 4. What would it take to identify this relationship as a moral problem? 5. Are all financial relationships with industry unethical? 6. If not, when does the relationship become unethical?

I think it is extremely rare for someone to go into a job with criminal intent to capitalize on the system and take home as much money as possible regardless of possible harm. No, everyone begins with the best intentions and becomes blinded to the possible effects of their actions. And, precisely because each person has no malevolent intentions, each person feels insulted by even a hint of judgment and defends her or his practices vehemently. Because good people do X or Y, it is easy to think it is impossible that X or Y is a bad thing, especially when we can show that many people have benefited from these practices.

åIt is easy to be blinded by the fog of good intentions and financial influence, and ethicists are not immune. The job of the ethicist is not to be perfect but to be on guard. The job of the ethicists is to constantly strive to get a clear view through the fog and to help others stay on the paved path running alongside that slippery slope.

 

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in bioethics, education, ethics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Thought experiment: Financial Conflicts of Interest

  1. keithnoback says:

    We are so invested in our agency, we think it’s inviolable. But we should know better, with all of our own data on the insidious and pervasive effects of bias in hand. No one is immune.

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