Ethics in the veterinary profession

0
223

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Photo: vadimgozhda – 123RF

Veterinarians and vet staff work in a profession that places them in a unique moral position. Throughout their working life, they regularly face ethical dilemmas and have to find ways to deal with the impact of their decisions. This can cause work-related stress and may even play a part in the high suicide rate among veterinarians, though no direct correlation has yet been confirmed.

Common ethical challenges include what to do when clients have limited funds, and conflicts between the interests of an animal and the interests of the owner. End-of-life decisions can weigh very heavily on professionals. The pandemic has also created challenges 

“I prefer the term, ‘ethically challenging situations’,” says Dr Anne Quain, co-author of the book, Veterinary Ethics: Navigating Tough Cases, with Professor Siobhan Mullan. “A dilemma is a choice between two competing interests or equal options, and that doesn’t reflect the reality for most veterinary teams.”

A companion animal veterinarian, Dr Quain is also a lecturer at the University of Sydney’s Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She’s also a Diplomate of the European College of Animal Welfare and Behavioural Medicine in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law.

“Ethical decisions generate a particular type of stress called moral stress,” she says. “If people need to act in a way that it not aligned with their values, this leads to moral distress. Additionally, making endless decisions—ethical or not—can lead to cognitive fatigue and poor decisions. 

“For veterinary team members, poor decisions can also have negative animal welfare consequences. Given that people work in veterinary settings because they care about animal welfare, this is particularly distressing.”

Professional ethics

Vet practices simply can’t be run purely as a business—professional ethics must be the first priority. Tried and trusted business adages such as ‘the customer is always right’ do not translate to a vet practice. Sometimes, the customer is completely wrong.

I prefer the term, ‘ethically challenging situations’. A dilemma is a choice between two competing interests or equal options, and that doesn’t reflect the reality for most veterinary teams.

Dr Anne Quain, author & lecturer, Sydney School of Veterinary Science

“Professional ethics require us to act on what should be, not what the consumer wants,” says Dr Tanya Stephens founder of Haberfield Veterinary Hospital in Sydney’s inner west. Dr Stephens is the author of the recently published book, One Welfare in Practice: The Role of the Veterinarian, that takes a broad view of ethics in the profession. She’s also past president of the AVA Australian Veterinarians for Animal Welfare and Ethics Group, and chair of its Animal Welfare Trust.

“The word ‘dilemma’ has a negative connotation and suggests making a difficult choice between two solutions with neither satisfactory,” she says. “In reality, vets routinely make good decisions without too much angst.”

Cost of care

Many of the most difficult issues a vet faces centre around money and the ability to pay. If a client can’t afford essential medical help, how do you proceed? How do you make the right ethical choice?

“It can be a difficult situation and a common cause of abuse of vets,” says Dr Stephens. “I believe that the level of service offered should never depend on the ability of the owner to pay. Instead, it should be based on the best evidence for best outcomes for the animal, the owner and the vet. 

“Many practice owners, including myself, find solutions on an individual basis. However, there should be a system in place that caters for low-income pet owners. Effective pet insurance could also be useful, but we need to ensure that insurance is worthwhile and doesn’t lead to overservicing.” 

Ethics rounds

Currently enrolled in a PhD focused on ethically challenging situations encountered by veterinary team members, Dr Quain is looking at whether ethics rounds can help vet team members. The hope is that it will be a tool to enhance ethical discussions and aid wellbeing in the sector. 

“Team members brainstorm ethical challenges they have encountered in their work,” says Dr Quain. “The group picks one, I facilitate, and we work through that challenge together.”

I was in Cambridge years ago and I met up with Prof Don Broom, one of the leading animal welfare professors. He said, ‘You vets are very lucky. You get to solve ethical problems every day of the week.’ That’s very true. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had from the job.

Dr Tanya Stephens, founder, Haberfield Veterinary Hospital

Ethics rounds are currently run via Zoom due to COVID restrictions. The problem is looked at from all angles and all options are discussed, including the evidence that’s required to make a decision and the potential laws that apply. The group makes a decision and then thinks about the process. What have they learned? Would they do something differently or would they do exactly the same thing?

“The idea is to help team members talk to each other about ethical challenges,” says Dr Quain. “My research has shown that the number-one resource that people use when faced with an ethical challenge is colleagues. When people talk to each other in a structured way about ethical issues, it equips veterinary team members to navigate those challenges better.”

Positive ethics

Dr Stephens sees a positive side to veterinary work and really enjoys practice. She believes that ethical challenges make your life—and your job—worthwhile.

“I was in Cambridge years ago and I met up with Prof Don Broom, one of the leading animal welfare professors,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You vets are very lucky. You get to solve ethical problems every day of the week.’ That’s very true. There’s a great deal of satisfaction to be had from the job.”

Ethical dilemmas will always be a part of veterinary medicine. How you deal with them and how you cope with the consequences of your decisions will have an impact on your wellbeing. Acting in alignment with your ethics is the best way to minimise stress at work, as is the creation of an ethical workplace. Difficult situations such as end-of-life decision-making will always have an impact but how you approach it is paramount.

“Ninety-nine per cent of my clients know when it’s time for their animals to go,” says Dr Stephens. “I see it as a privilege to euthanase a suffering animal. Our position is unique in the professional world. If we’re kind and caring and act ethically, our job is truly uplifting.”

Dr Quain is currently recruiting volunteers to participate in ethics rounds, a Zoom workshop involving groups of 6-10 veterinary team members. For more information, email: anne.quain@sydney.edu.au

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here