This week, a decision came down from the Supreme Court that was really interesting to those of us in the veterinary industry, and it is relevant to pet owners as well. First, the backstory. A veterinarian in Texas had established an online presence that contained articles relating to pet care. Eventually, pet owners began using the online forum as a place to ask medical questions regarding their own pets’ care. He answered them—for a fee of $58. The Texas Board of Veterinary Medicine fined him $500 because Texas has a statute like that of Minnesota’s, which prohibits veterinarians from diagnosing or prescribing medications for pets with which they do not have a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship. What is a veterinarian-client-patient relationship, known in Veterinary Land as a VCPR?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Assocation, a VCPR exists “when your veterinarian knows your pet well enough to be able to diagnose and treat any medical conditions your animal develops.” The relationship is something of a give-and-take. Your job is to ask questions when you don’t understand something, follow your vet’s recommendations (or explain why you can’t or won’t,) and allow your vet to make clinical judgements about your pet. Your vet’s job is to provide medical care for your pet, document its care, guide you in providing at-home and other follow-up care, and tell you how to get emergency care for your pet.
The Texas statute even went one step further and prohibited vets from interacting with pet owners “solely by telephone or electronic means.” In turn, the veterinarian appealed the decision on the basis that his First Amendment rights to free speech were being violated. He won before a district judge, but lost before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, so he appealed to the highest court in the land on a First Amendment challenge to the law itself. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, upholding the previous decision and, in essence, deferring to state regulators on the matter.
Why does this matter to you? Again, the same statute affects veterinarians in Minnesota (and in most, but not all, other states in the U.S.) The statute is the reason why your family vet needs to see your pet at least once a year. It’s also the reason that we, as emergency clinic staff members, can’t be more helpful when concerned pet owners call wanting to know either what is wrong with a pet or if a pet is going to be okay. And it’s the reason we can’t refill prescriptions without prior authorization from your family veterinarian; we simply can’t claim that we have a valid relationship with you and your pet unless our veterinarian has examined your pet (and done so recently.)
Mightn’t allowing veterinarians to provide advice over the phone or internet without a VCPR save pet owners’ money? That was the opinion of the libertarian-based Institute for Justice organization in regards to the Texas case. They felt that the restriction of free speech within certain designated professions (often veterinarians, doctors, chiropractors, etc.) only serves to amplify the importance of those professions against the interests of the consumer to spend less. Speaking from experience, however, I can tell you that phone advice, even the most well-intentioned, may end up costing you more in both money and heartache due to the consequences of delaying medical care for your pet. Such advice often starts with “It’s probably nothing—you could just watch it overnight.” It’s really easy to give advice like that even within the constraints of an existing VCPR, imagine how easy it is to dole out over the internet, radio, or phone having never even met, much less examined, the pet.
In the end, it’s my sincere opinion that the Supreme Court decision to allow restrictions against veterinarians providing advice to pet owners is in the best interests of pets and their owners. While vets and their staff really do want to be helpful, they can’t do so properly without being informed. The best way to keep them informed is to gift them with an active role in your pet’s medical care—including yearly or twice yearly wellness examinations and examinations in-between–whenever something isn’t as it should be. So, the next time your pet is sick, make sure to go where you’ll get the best information, and call your family veterinarian instead of dialing Dr. Google.