Q:My vet took some X rays of my horse's legs. I paid the bill in full, but when I asked for the X rays, he said they belonged to him and not me. Is this correct? If I'm charged for the X rays, why can't I have them?

A:Many veterinarians run into this situation, not only equine veterinarians. To the client, it makes sense that he or she would own the radiographs (X rays) since, in the client's opinion, he or she paid for them. However, the images themselves (the film or other medium) remain the property of the veterinarian who ordered or took the radiographs. The diagnosis which is the result of the radiographs is the service the client has paid for. The notion that "I paid for them and they're mine" just is not a valid argument either legally or professionally when it comes to obtaining original copies of radiographs. The reason the radiographs are kept by the veterinarian is so there is a complete medical history of the horse on record. Maintaining complete records is not exclusive to equine medicine; it works the same way in human medicine. Also, it is required by law that veterinarians keep radiographs on file for a specific period of time, which will vary by state.

Owners, trainers, or other parties concerned with the radiographs are entitled to copies, prints, or other duplication documents, if they are granted permission by the party responsible for ordering the radiographs to be taken. This is true for not only radiographs, but any medical records on the horse.

Owners and trainers often have been given the originals by their veterinarians. This is a habit that is hard to break. Many owners or trainers think that receiving the originals is normal business practice since that is what they are accustomed to. Veterinarians need to keep the original radiographs so a complete medical history of the horse's medical records, including images, is available for future use. On the positive side, with the increased use of digital images, some of these problems with original radiograph ownership are improving.

A concern many horse owners and trainers have is that if they do not obtain the original radiographs, disclosure of a horse's problems might be revealed to those who are in the position to buy the horse. You must remember, veterinarians are not allowed to disclose any health information about a horse without the owner's permission.

As with most controversial issues, communication (usually the veterinarian's responsibility) with the owner or trainer can alleviate the problem. Also remember, ample time and preparation should be allowed for sufficient image duplication to satisfy all parties involved.

One discouraging part of the radiograph problem comes into play when a veterinarian, or for that matter an owner or trainer, requests that radiographs be sent to him/her by the veterinarian or equine hospital that has taken the films. If the second veterinarian then gives the radiographs to the owner or trainer either because the owner or trainer demands them or it is that veterinarian's practice to hand over the originals, the situation results in a more complicated professional dilemma.

Legally, the veterinarian who took or ordered the radiographs owns them. In this day of easy duplication or manipulation of images, there is little reason why a client, agent, owner, etc. can't have the information he or she needs or requires while the veterinarian upholds his/her professional requirements for maintaining a complete medical history of the horse.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a problem that is unique to equine veterinarians or veterinarians in general. It also occurs in human medicine, where a great effort is placed on the maintenance of complete medical records. Images are frequently "lost," "misplaced," "misfiled," or given out to patients without adequate documentation or safeguards to ensure they will be returned.

About the Author

Norman W. Rantanen, DVM

Norman W. Rantanen, DVM, is a board certified radiologist with an equine specialty. Rantanen practices at San Luis Rey Equine Hospital in Bonsall, Calif.

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