Texas veterinarian in legal battle over giving online medical advice

Retired veterinarian Dr. Ronald Hines is challenging the state of Texas in court after the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) penalized him for dispensing veterinary advice online, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

His lawsuit is raising new questions about freedom of speech, as well as how the internet is impacting the traditional veterinary medicine model.

Hines retired in 2002 after an adventure-filled veterinary career. He started writing articles for his website, which eventually attracted the attention of people who began soliciting his advice about their pets' medical conditions. Eventually he started charging $8.95 per answered question, which often involved detailed written responses and occasionally phone calls, U.S. News and World Report reported.

Hines continued to answer questions over the internet for more than 10 years until in March 2013 he received a letter from the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) claiming that he may be violating the Veterinary Licensing Act 801.351, which says "a veterinarian-client-patient relationship may not be established solely by telephone or electronic means."

According to the U.S. News and World Report, the TBVME officially reprimanded Hines, fined him $500, mandated that he retake the law portion of the veterinary-licensing exam, and suspended his license for a year.

In response to the TBVME, Hines brought a lawsuit against the state claiming that his First Amendment rights are being infringed upon.

Hines is arguing that he doesn't claim or attempt to cure animals without physically being in their presence. Instead, he says he examines available information and records to give pet owners a clearer idea of their options.

"I don't claim to be able to cure an animal over the internet, or that I have any kind of clairvoyant powers," Hines said. "But I've done this so long that I kind of know statistically what occurs and I try to find them the nearest source of decent veterinary care and get them there."

Alan Howard, a Saint Louis University professor who teaches a First Amendment course, told the U.S. News and World Report he believes the state will argue that Hines's ability to provide high-quality, accurate veterinary advice is hindered by his inability to see patients in person. 

Patricia Wohlferth-Bethke, assistant director for the AVMA's field services division, said she supported the notion that in-person visits trump online consultation in almost every case.

"You get the physical exam, you're able to question the owner, and it's that interaction that has the value - having the animal examined prior to treatment," said Wohlferth-Bethke.

Hines's case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on April 8.   

Read the full article on the U.S. News and World Report website

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