Medicine & the Law - LawCall

If your pet was ill and you didn’t have immediate access to a veterinarian, would you accept the advice of an online vet?

One Texas veterinarian has found himself in hot water after attempting to help patients via a website he created. Disability forced Dr. Ronald Hines to give up his veterinarian practice after more than 30 years. But instead of enjoying retirement, he created a website where he posted articles about general pet health and care.

Before long, Hines was inundated with people wanting his advice. Many of these pet owners didn’t have access to a local vet, or could not afford to pay one. After so much interest was shown in his site, Dr. Hines began charging a flat fee of $58 for dispensing pet health care advice.

Nine years later, he received a reprimand from the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners telling him that he was breaking the law. In Texas, there is a law prohibiting practicing veterinary medicine without physically examining the animal.

The statute states that such a relationship “may not be established solely by telephone or electronic means”. Hines immediately stopped his service. His punishment included a year-long suspension of his license, a $500 fine, and he was required to retake the legal portion of the state license exam.

Hines then filed a lawsuit stating that his First Amendment rights had been violated. His attorney makes the point that if a vet gives a speech to the general public or writes a book, everyone agrees it is protected. Hines argued that the advice he was giving patients was not conduct subject to state regulation.

The state board filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit claiming that the advice Hines had given was professional conduct and had nothing to do with the First Amendment.

After going back and forth in appellate courts, Hines took his case to the Supreme Court, who refused to hear it. So Hines was right back where he started.

Do you think a vet should be able to give online advice? And isn’t it really up to a pet owner to decide whether or not to seek and accept such advice?

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