Ethical Issues for Racetrack Practitioners (AAEP 2012)

Extra scrutiny has been focused this year on the responsibilities and ethical standards expected from veterinarians who dispense medication to racehorses.

The daily decisions veterinarians face was addressed recently by Jeff A. Blea, DVM, during a presentation at the 2012 American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention, held Dec. 1-5 in Anaheim, Calif. Blea is a private racetrack practitioner from Von Bluecher, Blea, Hunkin, Inc. Equine Medicine and Surgery, in Sierra Madre, Calif.

No decisions on the backside of racetracks are black and white, and many of the most difficult decisions practitioners encounter are out of their control, Blea said. Still, he said these situations don't absolve racetrack veterinarians who must "explore and employ the highest ethics in practice."

One way veterinarians can facilitate change and promote ethical behavior is by charging for services, rather than only for dispensing medication--a common practice among racetrack veterinarians. Such a change eliminates the perception that a veterinarian is simply out to sell a medication without regard for its necessity. He called on racetrack practitioners to use and distribute medications responsibly in their practice and to review the AAEP's "Clinical Guidelines for Veterinarians Practicing in a Pari-Mutuel Environment," which was approved by the AAEP board of directors in August 2010.

The public perception of medication use in racing is another big challenge practitioners face, Blea said, noting a Thoroughbred trainer once said that a good veterinarian with ethics is not going to do very well in racetrack practice.

Blea said he takes exception to this trainer's opinion but also recognizes that ethical questions remain among the toughest to address.

"Good ethics mean something different to everyone," Blea said. "If it were simple, we wouldn't be here trying to figure it out."

The racing industry has wrestled with ethics and medication since the 1950s, and Blea questioned whether much progress has been made over the past 50 years. As an example, he cited two newspaper articles: one printed in a Los Angeles newspaper in 1954 titled "Cops Ride with Vets," and a New York Times article from 2012 titled "Racing Economics Collide with Veterinarians' Oath." Both of these articles deal with medication rules and violations, which he said cause most of the ethical dilemmas on the backside.

"We're still discussing ethics and we're still discussing medications," he said. "Do we still have an image problem? Yes."

Blea stressed the point of his presentation was not to point fingers or place blame but to "stimulate awareness and discussion among (AAEP's) membership" and to prompt "self-examination of ethics in racetrack practice."

"At the end of the day, we need to do the right thing for the right reason," he concluded. "We have an obligation to the horse, industry, profession, and ourselves to take responsibility for our actions."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.