Should parents be allowed to give teachers gifts?

Today’s Boston Globe (Gift limits for teachers irk givers, recipients; Many reject fears of undue influence) goes after an easy target: restrictions and reporting requirements for teachers who receive gifts from parents. Under a state advisory teachers can’t accept gifts worth more than $50 and must file written disclosures even for cheaper gifts if a “reasonable person” could think a teacher would be influenced as a result of the gift.

The Globe story trots out the obvious objections to the policy:

  • “There’s no common sense here,” says a superintendent.
  • Teachers often use the gifts to buy something for the classroom, not themselves
  • Expensive gifts are rare
  • No one’s complained

I’m sympathetic to these arguments. And yet, experience from the pharmaceutical industry tells us that the state may actually be on to something here with its restrictions. There are a lot of reasons pharmaceutical companies give doctors gifts. Some of the big items (largely banned now) such as pricey tickets for sporting events and trips to exotic locations are straightforward attempts to buy influence.

But it’s interesting to note that pharma is still keen to give out small gifts such as pens and prescription pads and to pay for lunch. One reason they do this is that pharma understands that even small gifts create a sense of obligation on the part of the recipient. Subconsciously the doctor wants to pay the pharma rep back, and the easiest ways to do that are to spend time with the rep (when they can be influenced to prescribe a specific drug) or just to start writing more prescriptions. Even when doctors think they aren’t being influenced they often are. That’s why pharma keeps at it.

I’m not saying teachers are necessarily going to be influenced by small gifts from parents. The dynamics are different in the classroom after all. But the Globe is remiss for not exploring this angle, especially in what’s billed as a news story. Even if restrictions were removed, I’d like to see the teachers receive brief education on the psychology of gift giving so they can be aware of the dangers.

I’d like to see the same for doctors, too.

February 21, 2011

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