Ethics: Doc gets stock 'tip' from patient

Published January 21, 2006 12:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Medical ethics do not forbid this trade, but investor ethics - a curious phrase, given recent headlines - do, so you may not make this sale.

An essential question for a physician is this: Would my actions adversely affect patient care? In this case, I think not. And given that you don't actually treat this patient, there is even less likelihood of your undermining his health.

But what the AMA allows, the SEC does not. Gregg M. Mashberg, an attorney specializing in securities law, notes that the legal issue is complicated (well, he would; he is an attorney, and one who's never even met you). ''The physician runs a very serious risk that his stock trade could be deemed illegal insider trading under what we call the 'misappropriation' theory,'' he notes. That is, material gained in a confidential relationship like that between a doctor and patient may not be used to trade stock.

Mashberg's advice is prudent. While your risk of being prosecuted seems slight, the idea that underpins this stricture - you should not trade on privileged physician's information - is ethically sound.

But why assume that the news of a CEO's ill health would depress a company's stock? The lachrymose shareholders of a struggling company might be delighted to learn that current management had contracted career-ending maladies, and wish them a full recovery and happy retirement.

I am a design professor at a state university that is unable to adequately fund our graphics program and thus to provide the fonts we need to teach typography. My colleagues and I have stocked the lab computers with fonts we purchased as professional designers, fonts licensed only for our use on a single computer, not multiple machines in a classroom. Are our actions justifiable in the name of education?

- Anonymous, Connecticut

Your motives are good; your methods are not. It is regrettable that this important resource is so expensive, but that does not justify the conduct you describe.

There are alternatives that might help you get the fonts you need. As I'm sure you know, much software is available at a more modest educational rate or even as shareware. Some schools impose a small materials charge on students in lab classes. What's more, there is much debate about what is permissible as fair use. It is doubtful that this doctrine allows installing multiple copies of an entire font, but that is something for an intellectual property lawyer to sort out. Unfortunately, if these options prove useless, you are still ethically barred from semi-swiping these fonts.

Update: The design professor tried each of these strategies, with no success. He plans to delete all but legitimately licensed fonts and hopes that students seize the opportunity to be creative.


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