We live in the age of instant and abundant information. Today's horse owners and enthusiasts are extremely well-informed and have high expectations for the medical care of their animals. As a result, it is not uncommon when a horse develops a medical problem for the horse owner to desire a second opinion from an expert to supplement the information provided by his or her own veterinarian. In this day and age when finding contact information on anyone is an easy cyber task, more and more horse owners are directly contacting expert veterinarians and seeking advice on the diagnosis or care of their horses. Although done with good intentions, the exchange of advice from a veterinarian who has never seen the patient directly to the client is in violation of the laws governing the practice of veterinary medicine.
The practice of veterinary medicine includes the rendering of advice or recommendations by any means, including telephonic and other electronic communications, with regard to diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of animal disease. When veterinarians offer expertise and advice on a particular case that is not under their primary care, they are known as consultants.
A veterinary consultant should be someone with extensive experience--either through practice, research, or both--in a specific area of veterinary medicine. In veterinary medicine the act of consulting is regulated by the state's veterinary practice act (a set of laws regulating veterinary practice). Although each state has it own veterinary practice act, the practice acts are very similar and modeled after a set of guidelines prepared by the American Veterinary Medical Association (you can read the model practice act at www.avma.org). The practice act defines consultation as when a licensed veterinarian receives advice by any method of communication from another veterinarian, licensed in any state, whose expertise would benefit a patient. The responsibility for the welfare of the patient remains with the licensed veterinarian receiving consultation. Consulting veterinarians may or may not charge fees for services. Whether or not they charge for their advice, they are required to communicate their findings and opinions directly to the attending veterinarian.
While this regulation may seem like a nuisance, it is in place to protect the patient. All too often, if a key piece of information is omitted in presenting the case to the consulting veterinarian, the consultant might not give the optimal advice. Occasionally it can even be wrong advice. Veterinarians are trained to communicate case information in a very specific and thorough manner. Your attending veterinarian will have performed a physical examination on your animal and will be familiar with the history and diagnostic findings that the consultant will need to reach sound conclusions and give good advice. And after all, it is expert and appropriate advice that you are seeking.
So if you are interested in seeking an expert opinion regarding your horse's condition, you first need to engage your veterinarian in the process. Asking your veterinarian to discuss a case with a consultant does not imply any lack of faith on your part in the abilities of your veterinarian. In fact, most veterinarians welcome the opportunity to discuss cases with colleagues and view it as an efficient way to become updated on what's new in veterinary medicine and research. Consultants also benefit from discussing cases with attending veterinarians. It helps to keep them abreast of what is occurring in the field and allows them to gather data from a large number of cases in their areas of expertise. In turn, this data can be shared with other practicing veterinarians, with the expert acting as a central point for dissemination of current information.
So, although many clients are reluctant to ask their veterinarians about seeking an expert second opinion, this need not be the case. If your horse has a disease or condition that is proving difficult to diagnose, manage, or treat, asking your veterinarian if it would be advantageous to seek the input of a veterinarian with a specific expertise in the area of concern is a reasonable and positive course of action.
Originally published December 2007.
Dianne McFarlane, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor in physiological sciences at Oklahoma State University. Her research interests include aging and endocrine disease in the horse.