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Privacy act used for pets, other animals

May 25th, 2004, 09:52 AM
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - The University of Georgia's veterinary hospital treats thousands of horses, cats, dogs, birds, reptiles and other pets each year. But don't ask about them - that's information for their owners only.

Hospital officials apply the same confidentiality rules for humans to their animal patients. That means no disclosure of medical conditions, no photos taken without an owner's consent.

It even extends to the large-animal unit, where milling about is not allowed. An owner can stand only near the stall of his pet.

"It's like a human hospital," said LaDon Wallis, a new graduate of UGA's veterinarian school who has worked at its animal hospital for six years. "It's not just this place where animals are having a field day like a park. People should respect that."

More veterinarians, animal hospitals and zoos nationwide are holding back patient information since last year, when the federal privacy Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act went into effect at human hospitals.

Also last year, the American Animal Hospital Association introduced accreditation standards requiring policies that protect the privacy of animals treated by its 3,000 members in the United States and Canada.

"There has been an increase in awareness on the part of our profession that we should respect the legal limitations of medical records," said Link Welborn, a Tampa, Fla., veterinarian and past president of the Denver-based association.

HIPAA has "probably raised our profession's awareness about potential liability," he said.

At the UGA hospital, staff members were forced to hang signs on patients' charts saying they were confidential to keep away wandering eyes. "People would just be flipping through the records," Wallis said.

The University of Tennessee's Veterinary Teaching Hospital operates on the premise that every individual has a right to privacy, and pets are property, says records administrator Sue Gray. It is standard procedure to first get an owner's permission to release an animal's medical records or allow photos or video of an animal.

"It protects individual property rights," Gray said.

California attorney Sandra Toye, who has worked on companion animal law issues for five years, said she has seen veterinary offices refuse to release even the most general information about trends or illnesses they are seeing.