July 2010

Ethical behavior

From oil spills to financial meltdowns, the question of ethical behavior—how it can go astray, and when it does, how misconduct can go on, apparently without serious challenge—has engaged many people in our country over the past few years. An important recent book, titled Waking Up Blind: Lawsuits Over Eye Surgery by Tom Harbin, MD, reminds us that academic medicine is not immune to issues like those.

Though it chronicles events nearly 25 years old, the book provides an ever-current cautionary tale, involving a powerful figure whom few dared question, one or two brave individuals who risked their reputations and careers to sound the alarm bells, and repeated decisions on the part of the institution’s internal review boards as well as external reviewers not to pursue the truth.

Raising questions about the actions of a colleague is serious. It’s essential to distinguish signs of unethical, illegal, or unsafe conduct from personal animosity—simply disagreeing strongly with (or disliking) the person. It’s probable, in fact, that one of the reasons that so many organizations fail to pursue warnings properly is the fear that accusations might be unfair, or motivated by some form of anger or revenge.

People who do take forward genuine concerns typically go through a lot of anguish - that they won’t be believed, that there will be retaliation, that others will suspect them of having a hidden agenda. In fact, I’d say that unless you are dealing with turmoil like that, you’re probably not looking at a real ethical problem.

But if ever you find yourself facing that kind of quandary, you should know that we will listen. We have channels in place that let you voice your concerns, even anonymously.

Each of us is a guardian of the principles we stand for. If you encounter behavior that disturbs you, please remember: that’s exactly what the helpline—1-866-NYU-1212—is for.