On the fragility of medical virtue in a neoliberal context: the case of commercial conflicts of interest in reproductive medicine.

14 August 2017

Social, political, and economic environments play an active role in nurturing professional virtue. Yet, these environments can also lead to the erosion of virtue. As such, professional virtue is fragile and vulnerable to environmental shifts. While physicians are often considered to be among the most virtuous of professional groups, concern has also always existed about the impact of commercial arrangements on physicians’ willingness and capacity to enact their professional virtues. This article examines the ways in which commercial arrangements have been negotiated to secure medical virtue from real or perceived threats of erosion. In particular, we focus on the concern surrounding conflicts of interest arising from commercial arrangements that have developed as a result of neoliberal economic and social policies. The deregulation of medical markets and privatization of services have produced new commercial relationships that are often misunderstood by patients, publics, and physicians themselves. ‘Conflicts of interest’ policies have been introduced in an attempt to safeguard ethical conduct and medical practice. However, a number of virtue ethicists have critiqued these policies as inadequate for securing virtue. We examine the ways in which commercial arrangements have been seen to impact upon medical virtue, both historically and in the context of modern medicine (using the example of fertility services in Australia). We then describe and critique current efforts to restore clinical virtue through both conflict of interest policies and through virtue ethics. Finally, we suggest some possible ways of addressing the corrosive effects of neoliberalism on medical virtue.