The Legal Perils of Giving Medical Advice on the Internet

A Texas law barring veterinarians from offering online consultation draws First Amendment scrutiny.

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Is offering medical advice over the Internet a First Amendment right?

By SHARE

Before Ronald Hines opened up a letter from the Texas Board of Veterinary Examiners last March, it had never occurred to him that he might be breaking the law.

At the age of 69, Hines has spent almost his entire adult life helping and caring for animals. After graduating veterinary school in 1966, he traveled to all corners of the globe while enlisted in the U.S. Public Health Service. He left the service in the 1980s after suffering a debilitating injury, and later became a veterinarian.

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Hines ran his own clinic in Sarasota, Fla. and at one point worked on the staff at SeaWorld. "I've lived in Israel," Hines recalls. "I've run a little veterinary practice – the only one – in Galilee near the Lebanese border. I spent much time in Mexico and today I speak Spanish as much during the day as English."

But in 2002 Hines retired for good and settled down in Brownsville, Texas, where he began writing articles about veterinary care for his website.

"My disabilities limit the amount of time I can actually see clients," he explains. "And my situation here in Brownsville limited the availability of people who really needed my level of expertise. So the internet was just a blessing for me. When I realized what I could do, I just sort of gravitated to it."

It wasn't long before people began to notice. Desperate pet owners searching Google for medical information began landing on his page and he was soon bombarded with requests for vet advice.Though a few emails came from fellow Texans, the overwhelming majority originated from other states and countries.

"I received emails from Africa, the former Soviet Union, little islands, places where there just isn't any veterinary knowledge base," he says. "And the only thing required is that we be able to find a common language."

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Hines soon found himself spending hours every day answering people's questions, writing long, detailed responses and, in some cases, calling pet owners by phone when he thought a case was particularly urgent. At some point, in order to weed out the less serious inquiries, he began charging a small fee of $8.95 per patient. His take-home pay, however, never amounted to more than $2,000 in a single year, he claims.

But in March—after more a decade of dispensing veterinary advice over the Web for a small fee— the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners sent Hines a letter claiming the department "has received a complaint alleging you have and are currently operating an internet consultation service which provides medical recommendations to clients." This practice, the letter continues, "may constitute the practice of veterinary medicine in violation of the Veterinary Licensing Act 801.351."

The law—which Hines claims he never heard about—says "a veterinarian-client-patient relationship may not be established solely by telephone or electronic means." In other words, it has been effectively illegal to treat an animal over the internet in the state of Texas since the law was passed in 2005, at least in cases in which the veterinarian has had no direct contact with the animal in question. Since that first letter was sent Hines has faced fines and even a suspension of his veterinary license.

So Hines decided to fight the state, claiming the law is a violation of his free speech rights and is merely a product of economic protectionism.

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Nicole Oria, executive director of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, said she hadn't yet seen the lawsuit and so couldn't comment on it.

Jeff Rowes, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that has taken on Hines as its client, claims that the Veterinary Licensing Act is one of many state laws passed in recent years at the behest of industry groups that seek to inoculate themselves from outside competition.

"It's telling that the [veterinary] law was enacted right about the time that the internet was really making inroads, when people were able to get cheap, effective information off the internet without having to make these expensive in-person visits," he says, pointing out that Texas adopted the model language from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the national umbrella lobbying organization for U.S. veterinarians.