Unlike people, pets are not protected by HIPAA, the law that guides medical privacy, because they are considered property and not persons (although there are many pet owners who would argue otherwise!) Like people, however, health information for pets and livestock collected at the vet also is protected by law. Thirty-five states have statutes that address the confidentiality of veterinary patient records. Check out this link to a summary of these privacy laws from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The idea of "HIPAA for pets" caught our attention, being fans of all things related to health insurance and benefits. We did some research on pets' protected health information, and this is what we found.
Because pets are not covered by HIPAA, a federal law, states have set laws about how to share medical records for animals. In Wisconsin, where HNI HQ is located, this is what the law looks like:
453.075 Access to health care records. The owner of any animal patient of a veterinarian, or any other person who submits to the veterinarian a statement of written informed consent signed by the owner, may, upon request to the veterinarian:
(1) Receive a copy of the animal patient's health care records upon payment of reasonable costs.
(2) Have the animal patient's X-rays referred to another veterinarian of the owner's choice upon payment of reasonable costs.
In short, a third party who wants access to an animal's medical records needs to present written consent from the owner to the animal's vet, and there are costs associated with getting the records.
Unlike humans, pets probably don't care if the world knows they have medical concern. (Ask any dog owner if her dog is concerned about privacy as her canine readily does its business on a walk down a busy street.) Medical privacy is important for pets because pets are property (recall again why pets aren't covered by HIPAA).
Let's say a Good Samaritan — someone who rescued a pet against the owner's wishes — brings the rescued animal to a vet. The vet could be dragged into a legal conflict with the pet owner for helping the Good Samaritan and treating the animal. This is because when the Good Samaritan took the pet from the pet owner without the pet owner's permission, the Good Samaritan may have committed a crime (trespass, theft, illegal possession of a pet). The vet could be viewed as aiding and abetting a criminal over the course of treating the rescued animal — all because the pet owner didn't give permission!
You can see why it's important for vets to get consent from owners when it comes to animal care and records release. Veterinarians who follow their state's rules for releasing pet records should have few worries about lawsuits — same as medical doctors for human patients!
States' medical privacy rules also give veterinarians a legal framework for sharing information. For instance, pets' medical records sometimes are sought in divorce proceedings to support accusations of neglect. For example, if a mom believes her estranged husband is seriously neglecting his dog, she might seek the dog's medical records because they could be considered relevant to how responsible her husband might be in caring for their minor child. Even if the dog's records would affect a custody ruling, a vet (in Wisconsin, at least) could be held liable for sharing the pet's medical records without consent from the owner.
Like doctors with HIPAA, veterinarians and other animal medical professional have to be cautious about the privacy of their patients, even if they're furry, feathered, or fishy. Legal woes could meet well-meaning animal docs!