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Conflicts of interest in equine practice

Should we perform pre-purchase examinations where the seller is a client?

24 February 2020, at 9:00am

The purchase of a horse or pony can appear to be a simple business transaction although there may, of course, be considerable sums of money and high emotion involved. In many situations the purchaser may have unrealistic expectations too. Veterinary surgeons step directly into this highly charged situation every time they perform a pre-purchase examination (PPE). If, for whatever reason, disappointment follows, or something goes wrong, the modern consumer society dictates that someone must be to blame and the finger is frequently pointed at the vet.

There is no other transaction where it is easier for the seller to offload all responsibility for defective goods and it is a tribute to our profession that negligence claims are not more frequent. Veterinary Defence Society figures from 2001 to 2018 show that just over one in three of all equine negligence claims involve a PPE. A significant number of complaints against equine practitioners made by clients to the RCVS are concerned with allegations of dishonesty or incompetence whilst performing a PPE.

Vets performing a PPE owe a legal duty of care to the purchaser of the horse, who is the client in this situation. Normally there is no contract between a vet carrying out a PPE and the seller of the horse. This is so even when the seller happens to be an existing client of the vet. There is a comprehensive section in the Code of Professional Conduct for Veterinary Surgeons in the supporting guidance chapter seven “Equine pre-purchase examinations” and all vets should remain familiar with all parts of the Code.

It must also be born in mind that the PPE certificate is what it says: a certificate. Certificates fall into several categories, but as the Code says: “A certificate is a written statement made with authority; the authority in this case coming from the veterinarian’s professional status”. Some certificates are government-designed documents whereas the equine pre-purchase examination certificate was designed by BEVA and the RCVS. Equine vets will find much useful information relating to certification in the RCVS Code's supporting guidance chapter 21.

The majority of RCVS complaints with which the VDS has been involved have centred on conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is a situation in which an individual has competing interests or loyalties because of their duties to more than one person. In the case of a vetting, we all know that the client is the prospective purchaser, but when the seller is a client, perhaps even a regular client bringing in a considerable amount of money to the practice, the potential for conflict is obvious. This is likely the reason that in the RCVS Code's supporting guidance chapter seven it states:

“Ideally, veterinary surgeons should not carry out PPEs where the vendor is an existing client and/or has a personal relationship with the veterinary surgeon, because of the conflict of interest. However, if, for practical or other reasons, veterinary surgeons do, they should follow additional safeguards to ensure the examination is not only fair, but perceived to be fair, by the client requesting the PPE.”

The Code then goes on to explain the additional safeguards. It would seem reasonable to take the view that our regulatory body would sooner we did not perform vettings where the seller is a client. However, we can do so. Indeed, many potential purchasers may believe if they use the usual vet for the seller, they will get access to any adverse history if there is any. To avoid any actual or perceived conflict it is very important to make sure that the potential purchaser is fully aware that the seller is a client and/or any personal relationships with the seller are disclosed.

Another potential issue can be when the horse is being sold by an “agent”. The term lacks a precise definition, but it is again important that there is transparency and the potential purchaser is aware if the selling agent is a client. Finally, it is not the responsibility of the examining vet to ascertain that the declared seller has legal title in the horse. It is the responsibility of the purchaser to satisfy themselves as to the ownership of the horse before purchase and to verify the records of any microchip with the relevant database.

So, there is no right or wrong answer to the question posed in the title of this article. However, it is very important that we are transparent in the procedure and any existing relationships are fully declared ahead of the vetting to allow the potential purchaser to be completely satisfied there is no conflict of interest. Finally, as the vet concerned you must also feel that you can carry out the PPE fully in the interest of your client: the potential purchaser.