Understand the "new normal" in veterinary-client privacy

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Be informed and protect your veterinary practice from a bevy of legal headaches

Have you noticed that every time you visit the doctor, dentist or other healthcare professional you're faced with yet another medical-record privacy form to read and another related document to sign? For that matter, you've probably received an unsolicited document from virtually every credit-card company, brokerage, bank or loan company you've ever dealt with announcing their compliance with ever-more-strict privacy laws.

The world is awash in problems associated with personal information, as the efforts to invade privacy become more widespread and increasingly sophisticated. So naturally, the question arises, "How does all of this affect us as veterinarians?"

Would it shock you to know that we are probably twice as vulnerable as a lot of the other institutions I previously mentioned? The veterinary hospital has to maintain vigilance in the protection of two separate areas of personal privacy rights. First, we need to strictly guard the personal and financial information of the pet or livestock owner. This includes a number of categories of private information, including bank-account numbers, credit-card information, addresses, credit history and more.

Second, we have to be certain that information we possess regarding the health and care of the client's property is disseminated only to individuals and businesses that are entitled to know that information. Let's explore this second area more deeply.

Releasing medical information to a non-owner

Information regarding how well a person maintains and cares for his pet or horse (theoretically, even livestock) is more sought-after by persons outside the veterinarian-client relationship than might seem obvious. Here are a few examples of why both large- and small-animal medical record information must remain protected and accessible only to those legally entitled to view it.

Divorce proceedings. It is not unheard of for people in the throes of a divorce to use every possible piece of evidence available to establish that the other party is a bad or negligent parent. If a mother, for example, knows that her estranged husband has been seriously negligent in taking care of his (of their) pet or horse, that information could be considered relevant to how responsible the other parent might be or will be in caring for a minor child in his care.

If pet records are revealed to a non-owner spouse, it may not even matter whether the introduction of this evidence affects the outcome of a child custody (or pet custody) hearing. The veterinarian could be liable to the person whose records were compromised merely for allowing the information to be disseminated to an un-entitled party.

"Aiding and abetting" illegal possession of a pet. This is a big problem both on a moral basis and in terms of potential professional liability. How many times has a person called you for an appointment or presented an animal for treatment when the animal involved actually belonged to the caller's neighbor or acquaintance? The usual story is, "My neighbor is neglecting this dog ..." or "This guy's cat always comes begging at my house for food anyway, so he sort of adopted me ... "

The phone call or visit reveals that the actual owner has allowed a hot spot to develop fly infestation or that the collar is so small it's become embedded in the dog's neck, which is chained outside the actual owner's house.

So what could be wrong with working on such an animal, presented for treatment by a Good Samaritan, especially if the person bringing in the animal is willing to pay the bill?

While the Good Samaritan law that applies to humans can probably be extended to animals in most jurisdictions (which is that emergency care to a person does not require standard patient identification rules), it isn't OK for just anybody to present somebody else's animal for treatment or surgery.

The veterinarian's practice needs to be very careful about identifying the actual owner of an animal being presented for treatment and even for vaccination. Although it may seem like a harmless or even magnanimous thing to do, undertaking treatment of an animal without direction and without the approval of the actual owner (except under emergency circumstances) frequently constitutes a violation of law. The doctor who does this may be violating civil and/or criminal law.

Regular readers of this column know that I'm a car collector, so I'll use an auto-related example. If I had an original "survivor" 1955 Corvette with all original paint, it could become half as valuable if it were repainted. It might look better, but the originality is gone. Therefore, good luck to any body shop that paints a car like that without matching the name on the work order to the title and registration.

Now imagine that Billy Bob has had an 8-year-old Boxer cross-tethered to his garage for years, and his new neighbor notices it constantly bleeding all over its rear legs. One day while Billy Bob is away, the neighbor comes in to your practice and has you diagnose the anal gland tumor and neuter the dog. When Billy Bob returns, the neighbor proudly announces that he's had the dog doctored in the owner's absence and would like reimbursement. But even if that's not possible, the neighbor feels good that the dog isn't suffering any longer.

Turns out that Billy Bob hasn't been looking for a job all that hard and has plenty of time on his hands. He calls the lawyer from the display ad in the back of the phone book, and the lawsuits start flying. ("No cost to you unless we recover money damages!") Trespass, conversion (theft), conspiracy and other suits against neighbor (and you) are alleged. Other civil claims, including torts against personal property and intentional infliction of emotional distress are thrown in for good measure. (Probably no worries about Billy Bob calling the state board to report you, though, because there's no payday in that.)

Animal theft. Pets and horses change owners all the time, and usually this presents no problem. However, it's not unheard of for a person to take another person's animal and begin claiming it as his own. This is particularly true within dysfunctional families and when a "Good Samaritan" takes an animal that they believe is being abused and outright "adopts" it without the consent of the actual owner. Additionally, there are those instances where pets are simply stolen from cars, yards and so on.

When a veterinary hospital provides an unauthorized person with medical records pertaining to another person's animal, it is bolstering the "ownership credentials" of the thief. It is much more difficult for another veterinary practice to be on notice that a new client might be presenting a stolen animal for treatment when the presenting person knows the medical history and possesses a prior medical record.

Navigate these dangerous legal waters with care, you well-meaning veterinarians.

Dr. Allen is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or visit info@veterinarylaw.com.

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