The Risks of Online Consultation

We’re inundated with online advice, whether solicited or not.  Many of us utilize various online sources to obtain quick answers without live, in-person consultation from a licensed professional.  WebMD is the classic example of such a site but there are countless others devoted to providing professional advice to an unknown audience.  We previously warned of the malpractice and ethical risks of providing online professional services when we posted about the lawsuit filed against Dr. Oz following his infamous “sleep aid solution.”  To combat these risks, some jurisdictions regulate the use of online services for various classes of professionals.  Such regulations were brought to the test when an internet savvy veterinarian recently filed suit against a Texas regulatory board for suspending his license.

Plaintiff Robert Hines, a 69-year old veterinarian in Brownsville, Texas, was suspended for operating an online advice website.  According to the Associated Press, for over ten years Hines provided online veterinary advice for a $58 flat fee, sometimes less.  His client base included national, even international clients, regarding domestic and exotic animals (apparently, his specialty was treating monkeys). Hines collected medical records and X-rays from his “clients,” performed research, and rendered online advice.

Hines’ internet practice was placed in jeopardy last month when the Texas veterinary board found that Hines’ internet consultation violated state laws because he never performed a physical exam.  The board ultimately suspended his license.  Hines responded by filing suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Southern Texas claiming that the board’s suspension violated his first amendment rights and constituted an unreasonable restriction on his profession. According to Hines, the lawsuit “is fundamentally a challenge to an obsolete approach to regulating professionals.” The suit is pending.

This scenario has the potential to change the regulatory landscape of internet services. According to Hines’ attorneys at the Institute of Justice, the case could impact fields that extend well beyond veterinary medicine including law, psychology, and financial advisors.  We will keep an eye on this lawsuit in the event that it results in limitations placed on the ability of a regulatory board to restrict online consultation.  For now, however, the advice from our Dr. Oz column remains in play: the risk of potential malpractice or regulatory problems increases when rendering professional consultation to a wide, unknown audience.