Law school grad and second-year vet student at Colorado State University Michelle Dally decided it was high time someone stepped up and dissected the role of vet industry-sponsored freebies in an ivory tower setting. Like so many veterinary students before her, she questioned the ethics of free pizza, flea products and pet food in vet school.

Let me explain. Or rather, let me let the future Dr. Dally explain in her own words, which appeared in this last issue of the JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association):

Every first-year veterinary student at Colorado State University is assigned a small desk in a dingy warren in the Anatomy building affectionately known as "the cubes." These desks are unremarkable in all ways but one: when students first arrive, they find their desks piled high with a variety of freebies — pens, notepads, backpacks, notebooks, highlighters, academic calendars, pet treats, pet food bowls, reference books, and more — all emblazoned with pet food, pharmaceutical, and other corporate brand names from across the veterinary industry. And that is only the beginning.

As the year unfolds, students discover that they are entitled to free and sharply discounted dog, cat, and horse food; free heartworm preventative; a free laboratory coat; and a free clipboard for use in their gross anatomy laboratory. Soon, first-year veterinary students are receiving e-mails through the official veterinary college e-mail distribution list encouraging them to apply to be corporate student representatives for a variety of companies — positions that typically involve little more than distributing additional freebies to their classmates and organizing one or two free lunchtime lectures. In return for their efforts, these student representatives are generally paid between $750 and $2,000 per semester. Some companies employ as many as two student representatives in each of the 4 veterinary college classes, whereas others employ only a single representative for each class or a single representative for the entire college. Regardless, the upshot is that there are typically one or two corporate-sponsored free lunches each week for veterinary students, and the corporate presence in the veterinary college is palpable.

Although it is not clear when some of these corporate-sponsored giveaways first began, the freebies and pet food discounts have been provided to students for at least the past five years. Given that most veterinary students are financially strapped and face a challenging academic schedule, the gifts, free food, and stress-free employment are typically greeted with enthusiasm and given little scrutiny.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. It happens at all levels of veterinary medicine, given our corporate conglomerate culture, and it’s getting more pronounced now that (a) animal medicine is bigger business than ever before, and (b) schools and their students are so increasingly cash-stressed and indebted that getting a fifty percent discount on dog food can mean a significant boost in the quality of human food they can now afford.

But is it right? Ask most students and they’ll tell you it might not be right … but it’s definitely not wrong. After all, they say, the companies have the money and, let’s get real, they’re not so easily bought.

"As if I'm going to be influenced by a pen," is a common refrain when concerns about the provision of freebies to veterinary students are raised. But social science research has suggested that gifts, no matter how insubstantial, do indeed bestow the giver some influence over the recipient.

...

The idea that medical professionals could actually be influenced by insubstantial gifts may seem counter intuitive, but studies and surveys have shown that the impulses generated by gift-giving are neither rational nor totally conscious. As suggested by *Brennan et al., "Individuals receiving gifts are often unable to remain objective; they reweigh information and choices in light of the gift. So too, those people who give or accept gifts with no explicit 'strings attached' still carry an expectation of some kind of reciprocity."

So whether we’re talking pens or pet food, we are susceptible to the influence of the giver … whether we think we are or not. More so, it should be argued, when the giftee is at an especially receptive place in his/her training. Because if you haven’t developed a well thought out rationale for recommending pet food, drugs or anything else, getting free pizza when you’re really hungry has a way of carving the gifting company’s initials into your psyche.

It’s a no brainer, then. The research (clearly cited in Ms. Dally’s piece) indicates that students are susceptible; which is why no medical institution deigns to accept gifts on behalf of its students. Because who wants to unleash a batch of effectively brainwashed brand loyalists onto an unsuspecting marketplace?

Well, it’s probably not as bad as all that, seeing as competing brands are vying for our attention, and the more companies sell the more some individuals consciously resist. But still…

So what’s to be done? For starters, all veterinary schools could go the way of the University of California at Davis’s vet school. No corporate freebies are allowed — at all. A strict ban on gifts is in effect. An elegant solution to an ugly problem, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Nonetheless, I suspect veterinary schools will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a vendor-free campus paradigm. After all, it’s not just the students who’ll have to give up the perks.

Dr. Patty Khuly

*Read the paper, Health Industry Practices That Create Conflicts of Interest in its entirety.

Pic of the day: #416 - Pizza Dog by Marty M. Ito

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