Medical Privacy for Pets
Medical privacy is a big deal. Nobody has the right to know what’s going on with regards to your health without your consent. But is the same true when it comes to our pets? The answer is, “Not exactly.”
To start with, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) that governs privacy when it comes to human medical care does not apply to veterinary patients. In fact, there is no regulation of veterinary records at the federal level at all. What’s left is an amalgamation of state laws (and not every state has one) and professional ethics, which means that your pet’s medical privacy is dependent on where you live and who your veterinarian is.
The primary reason behind this relative lack of regulation is simple. For better or worse, pets are legally considered to be property, so they have no rights when it comes to medical privacy. What rights that have been outlined pertain to you, the client and not your pet, the patient.
While some states have no regulations in place regarding the privacy of veterinary records, the statutes that do exist in other states tend to say something along the lines of “veterinarians shall not release veterinary records without the consent of the client.” Exceptions may be outlined, for instance in case of court order or subpoena or when public health or safety are involved. Bans on the release of veterinary records may also not apply to veterinarians who are in communication with each other regarding a patient’s care or when police, animal control officers, humane societies, or public health officials are involved.
If you want to know exactly what your state has to say about the privacy of a pet’s medical records, contact your state’s veterinary medical board. The American Veterinary Medical Association also provides a good summary of state statutes on its website.
Disclosure of Your Pet’s Medical Records
How do veterinarians handle questions regarding the disclosure of medical records? First, they have to follow whatever laws are on the books in the state where they are practicing. This can sometimes be inconvenient. For instance, a boarding facility could call your pet’s veterinarian to get updated vaccination records but the veterinary clinic may not be able to release that information without first talking to you. Some veterinarians get around these sorts of problems by asking their clients to sign a waiver. For example…
Check this box if you never want us to release any of your pet’s records without your permission.
Check this box if you only give us approval to release your pet’s vaccination records to boarding facilities, groomers, and other entities that we deem have a legitimate reason for needing that information.
Check this box if you give us approval to release any information from your pet’s veterinary record to anyone who asks.
Most of the states where I’ve practiced have had no statutes in place regarding the privacy of a pet’s medical records. Typically, we would hand over information whenever it seemed to be a reasonable request but would make sure to get the owner’s permission if the situation seemed a little bit “fishy.” This system certainly isn’t perfect, but I suspect it’s what is going on in many veterinary practices across the country.
If you have a particular reason to want to safeguard your pet’s medical information, talk to your veterinarian. The practice should be able to flag the records with whatever instructions you provide.