Avoiding Conflicts of Interest in Purchase Exams

At the recent American Association of Equine Practitioners Annual Convention in Nashville, several questions regarding potential conflicts of interest when conducting a purchase exam were posed to the Professional Conduct and Ethics Committee, which I chair. I hope a summary of the discussion will be useful to both buyers and sellers and shed some insight into the veterinarian’s perspective.
The most common potential conflict we encounter in practice is one in which both the buyer and seller are clients of the examiner’s practice. In the past, many have stated that one should not perform such an examination, and this is certainly one option. However, in many cases, neither the buyer nor seller object to such and are comfortable with a veterinarian performing the exam. This requires that there is full disclosure to all parties with whom you have a relationship and that there is full disclosure of all medical records and history of the animal by the seller. In my opinion, under these circumstances, the potential conflict can be avoided and all parties are served. One should always document such potential conflicts and have all parties sign off on such. When a situation arises in which there is no full disclosure of all medical history, veterinarians should walk away from the exam and advise the buyer politely that there is a potential conflict of interest and suggest another practice conduct the exam.

One question put to the committee concerned basing the fee for the exam on a percentage of the purchase price if the buyer does buy the horse. This is a clear conflict of interest and has great potential to influence the interpretation of the findings in favor of the seller. Many very expensive animals are examined by veterinarians daily and require thorough workups. 

x-ray of a foot
Veterinarians should be paid a just fee for these exams, but our fee should never be tied to whether a sale goes through.

The following statement from Harry Werner, VMD, effectively sums up these conflicts:

“Potential conflicts of interest, real or perceived, commonly present ethical challenges to performance of prepurchase examinations. Historically, this issue was addressed with a simple and short list of circumstances under which it was recommended that an equine practitioner decline to perform the examination. In reality, while some relationships clearly do represent a conflict, others do not or can be indemnified from such criticism by timely and full disclosure to all parties.

Few would question that the veterinarian should decline performing the examination if he/she owns any equity interest in the horse or stands to gain monetarily from the outcome of the sale. However, an oft-repeated admonition over the years has been to avoid examining any horse when the examiner has a ‘professional relationship’ with the seller or agents of the seller. This, in the opinion of many, is an unrealistic and unnecessary prohibition. In fact, a strong case can be made that the examiner with firsthand knowledge of the horse brings added value to the buyer, providing that the seller authorizes full disclosure of the medical history. Additionally, many times the buyer’s veterinarian also serves the seller in the same form and the buyer clearly expresses that he/she prefers this veterinarians perform the examination. It is my opinion that the answer to the ‘conflict of interest dilemma’ lies in full disclosure of the horse’s medical history and the examiner’s relationship with the seller and the horse to all parties.”

Dr. Werner’s statement is a good working document for all veterinarians conducting prepurchase exams. However, if one suspects that full disclosure is not going to prevent a conflict, then all parties are better served by the practitioner recusing themselves and advising the purchaser on the selection of another veterinarian.