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Respecting Fido's right to privacy

June 9th, 2004, 06:44 AM
There is a growing trend toward keeping animals' medical records private

by Brenna Fisher

Long time Boca Raton resident Irwin Stovroff looked at Jenny, his Corgi-Chihuahua mix, with pride as she trotted through the park.

“She’s the best little dog we ever had,” he said. Since Jenny is considered a member of the family, Stovroff said he wants to make sure that veterinarians and their employees are doing everything right. This includes keeping medical records, information about medical conditions, and any photos taken during office visits private.

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

Also last year, the American Animal Hospital Association introduced new 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 veterinarian and past president of the Denver-based association.

HIPPA has “probably raised our profession’s awareness about potential liability,” he said.

The trend toward animal privacy is a recent development, which until recently was often met with ridicule even by animal rights activists. Two years ago, Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., drew ridicule from animal rights activists, media lawyers and others when she withheld records on the death of a 17-year-old giraffe. Spelman cited the animal’s privacy and respect for the veterinarian-animal relationship.

Now sentiment is begining to change and many pet owners and members of the animalcare profession feel that privacy policies could be in the animals’ best interest.

“Anything done to promote and help these animals is marvelous as far as I’m concerned,” Stovroff said.

Albert Angel, a veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Boca Raton, said he understands that people have a right to keep any information they want private, but it can be an inconvenience.

Certain veterinarians won’t release any information about an animal to another veterinarian without the owner physically being present to authorize that transfer of data – even though updates about a pet’s vaccinations are usually considered a courtesy between veterinarians. As a result, some new clients have to travel to their former veterinarian to give their okay for information about their pet to be released even to another veternarian.

“Sometimes it’s going a little too far,” Angel said. He expects that in a couple of years there will be a law specifically protecting animal records.

Many people think of their pets as their children and that could be part of the reason they consider privacy an issue, said Sharon Bardos, mother of two and owner of two dogs and two cats.

“These are my children,” she said gesturing to her two sons. “And this is my dog,” she said pointing to Skip, a one-year-old Border-Collie mix. “There is a big difference between them.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.