Thursday, June 16, 2011

Buying influence in the early stages of veterinary careers.

 I found a commentary in the latest issue of JAVMA by a second year veterinary student at Colorado State University who is also a lawyer. The commentary addresses the wide variety of free goods, pet foods, medications and industry sponsored seminars provided to veterinary students. When I attended Colorado State 20 years ago, I remember a handful of pharmacy company sponsored seminars and a few coupons for free dog food over the entire 4 years. The seminars were unusual occurrences and there was usually some post-seminar commentary by faculty discussing where the company line may have diverged from the scientific evidence. It would appear things have changed drastically since then.

Here is Michelle Dally's description of the flow of swag that starts the first day of freshman year;
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.
 In addition to all of the gifts, students are also invited to "work" as student representatives for many of these companies, often for fairly significant amounts of money;
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.
In addition to the conscious and unconscious effects these gifts and sponsorships may have on students ideas and practices far beyond veterinary school (which is discussed well in the commentary) it leaves the profession as a whole open to other criticisms. Often one of the first accusations used to defend alternative practices or denigrate any science-based treatment which is produced by a pharmaceutical company is that veterinarians are just shills for "big pharma" or "big pet food". The same companies often sponsor veterinary conferences and seminars for veterinarians as well. The alternative veterinary industry really should not throw this particular stone, as their conferences are sponsored by supplement manufacturers and other companies to a similar extent.

The things that I found particularly disturbing about the commentary were the discussion of how these practices are tacitly and actively supported by the veterinary school with very little time spent educating the students on how they may be influenced by them. This is yet another way that veterinary schools are failing to teach their students critical thinking skills and how to evaluate evidence. This type of corporate influence may be even more insidious than teaching alternative practices which are not evidence based in a credulous manner. Students really should be taught how to critically analyze the claims of all of the players in the veterinary industry, from the pharmaceutical companies to the promoters of supplements and alternative treatments. Increasing the access companies have to students as described in this  commentary really does open the door for legitimate criticism, as well as giving charlatans something to point to to distract from their own lack of evidence.

I commend Michelle Dally for her commentary and for drawing attention to this topic.

June 15, 2011, Vol. 238, No. 12, Pages 1551-1554
doi: 10.2460/javma.238.12.1551

Ethical considerations raised by the provision of freebies to veterinary students
Michelle Dally, JD
College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523. (Dally)
Ms. Dally was a second-year veterinary student at the time of submission.


  1. I have suspected that dog food companies have an inordinate influence over veterinarians about diets. I know that at the University of Florida vet school, there is a shrine to Hill's in the lobby, displaying all of the various types of dog food Hill's offers. And, of course, Hill's is the only food served to canine patients at the small animal clinic there. I think that it is common for dog food companies to sponsor nutrition courses at schools. -- Rod Russell, Orlando, Florida

  2. I believe I saw a youtube video of the new "kitchen" at Texas A&M vet school hospital, exclusively stocked with purina products and decorated from floor to ceiling in purina corporate colors and logos. Between blatant corporate influence like that and many schools openly promoting quackery, I'm not sure what to think about the future of veterinary education in the US.

  3. Bartimaeus, what would happen if an ethically conscious veterinary student politely declined the 'freebies'? Has this ever happened? Do you think there would be negative repercussions from the college administration, faculty or other students? Do all veterinary schools tacitly endorse this type of activity?

  4. The fact that CSU students are tacitly encouraged to accept corporate freebies is ironic since one of the faculty members, Dr. Bernard Rollin, lectures extensively and has authored several books on veterinary ethics.

  5. I don't imagine there would be any repercussions for not accepting them, at least I hope so. It does seem to be getting a bit ridiculous though, and it is a little ironic, I wonder what Rollin thinks of it-he never seemed to be afraid to express his opinion when I was there. It certainly would be good if the students were made more aware than most of them seem to be how such gifts can influence them.

  6. Bartimaeus, as a CSU alumnus, I'm sure you can make your opinion heard on this important issue. :) Interestingly, gifts or freebies from pharmaceutical companies to physicians in Australia are now illegal--even pens! I don't know if that applies to Aussie veterinarians, though.