Pharmaceutical representatives use detailing, gift giving, and the donation of free samples as a means to gain access to and influence over physicians. In biomedical ethics, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether these practices constitute an unethical conflict of interest (COI) on the part of the physician. Underlying this debate are the following antecedent questions: (1) what counts as a conflict of interest, (2) when are such conflicts unethical, and (3) how should the ethical physician respond to conflicts? This article distinguishes between two perspectives that have been developed on these issues: a reliable performance model (PM) and a trustworthiness model (TM). PM advocates argue that a conflict of interest can only be established by demonstrating that a particular influence is undermining the reliability of the physician's judgment, and this requires empirical evidence of negative patient outcomes. TM advocates, on the other hand, argue that because of the fiduciary nature of the patient-physician relationship, physicians have an obligation to develop and be worthy of patient trust. A COI, on this view, is a condition that undermines the warrant for patients to judge a physician as trustworthy. Although there is much that is right in the PM, it is argued that the TM does a better job of responsibly addressing the unique vulnerabilities of the patient. The TM is then applied to the practices of detailing, gift giving, and sample donation. It is concluded that these practices constitute an unethical conflict of interest.
Keywords: conflict of interest; gifts; pharmaceutical representative; trust; trustworthiness.