The only people who don't have conflicts of interest are the dead. For the rest of us, the challenge is to manage those conflicts with integrity.
Businesses, professional associations and governments address some conflicts explicitly, in black and white terms, especially those having to do with self-dealing. The remedy in those cases is simple: prohibition.
Other potential conflicts - such as those that arise when psychiatrists accept money from companies whose drugs they might recommend - exist in tones of gray. The remedy in such cases is not so simple as prohibition. There may well be good reasons for drug companies to buy services from doctors - such as research, education or other expertise. Given the complexity of health care and the rapid pace of advancements therein, a fast and free flow of information from many sources is important.
However, one piece of the remedy for such potential conflicts is simple: transparency. Or, in other words, giving consumers the ability to follow the money.
Pioneer Press reporter Jeremy Olson has been reporting recently on the updated results of a unique Minnesota law that requires pharmaceutical companies to report gifts, grants and reimbursements to Minnesota doctors. His latest report (on Monday, "Drug makers step up giving to Minnesota psychiatrists"), discussed how much drug companies have paid to psychiatrists and the issues such payments raise. The overriding question: Do such payments induce doctors to favor the drug company's interests over those of their patients?
The answer isn't so simple. Not every apparent conflict of interest is as it appears. But the ability to follow the money - to ask the overriding question and get answers - helps in the effort to distinguish between appearance and fact. And in the effort to manage conflicts with integrity.