Veterinary Telemedicine: Once a novelty, now a necessity

Conventional wisdom prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was that the number of veterinarians incorporating telemedicine into their practices would gradually increase over the next decade.

No one could have anticipated how the outbreak of a novel coronavirus would fast-track that increase by several years. “Veterinarians looked at telemedicine as a novelty before this. Now it’s become a necessity,” said Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, veterinary journalist and Pawcurious blogger.

In April 2018, she created the Veterinary Telemedicine Association as a private group on Facebook, figuring veterinarians would one day need an online support group. For two years, that community consisted almost entirely of Dr. Vogelsang and a friend for a lack of interest. Things changed with the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent safety regulations limiting human interactions, however.

“I saw veterinarians in Facebook groups asking how to use telemedicine.” Dr. Vogelsang said. “They knew they needed telemedicine, but they had no clue what that meant.

“People were sort of running around in panic mode, signing up for platforms but not understanding what they wanted to do with it, and then getting really frustrated because they weren’t getting the outcome that they wanted. So there was this huge gap between knowing that they needed the technology and actually understanding what they needed that technology to do.”

Dr. Vogelsang renamed the Facebook group as the Veterinary Telemedicine Community in March, and the number of members has swelled to more than 3,000. “If it wasn’t for COVID, we’d probably still be at least five years out of where we are now,” she said.

“Before COVID, telemedicine was one of those things that veterinarians were somewhat interested in. The thinking was akin to, ‘I’ll get around to it.’ Now it’s, ‘I need to do this yesterday,’” observed Dr. Teller, a clinical associate professor of telehealth at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

After much of the country went into lockdown in April, Dr. Teller started doing webinars on telemedicine for state VMAs and other veterinary associations, averaging as many as three in a week. She’s also consulting with veterinary academic institutions now realizing they need to get their own telehealth programs up and running.

The reason for the sudden interest among veterinarians in telemedicine is readily apparent. Telemedicine limits contact between hospital staff members and clients, thus lowering the chances of spreading the COVID-19 virus, while allowing veterinarians to triage patients to determine whether animals need to be seen at the clinic.

Veterinarians want telemedicine now, but there’s a learning curve that comes with offering veterinary services in a new way, Dr. Teller explained.

“You need to figure out how telemedicine fits into your practice’s workflow,” she said, “and that means making sure your customer service representatives use the appropriate verbiage when speaking to clients about taking advantage of a virtual visit.

“For technicians, they may be on-screen teaching a client about nutrition for a new puppy or getting a new kitten to use a scratching post. For veterinarians, they can livestream a patient exam for an owner who can watch remotely as the veterinarian draws blood or gives the pet a vaccination.

“And then, of course, all the documentation and billing that go along with practicing veterinary medicine, whether you’re doing it in person or virtually.”

The main argument against telemedicine is that it is a subpar delivery system, that a veterinarian cannot adequately take care of patients through virtual visits. Dr. Vogelsang believes the current situation will prove this premise wrong.

“You just need to have a very clear understanding of what telemedicine can and cannot do. Telemedicine is not replacing everything you do in the clinic with a virtual visit. No veterinarian would ever want to use telemedicine for a case where you have to see the pet, such as bloat or a broken leg,” Dr. Vogelsang said.

Dermatology is one area of medicine in which veterinarians are using telemedicine, she explained, because progress can often be monitored by looking at photos and videos of the affected area.

Dr. Vogelsang advises veterinarians new to telemedicine to start small. “Simple rechecks, managing your diabetics and your derm cases—those are great starting points that help you get more comfortable with how telemedicine works,” she said.

Dr. Teller believes veterinary practices won’t drop telemedicine in a post-COVID world. “It’s never going to replace traditional veterinary medicine,” she said, “but I think people are recognizing the role that it does play in adding to the services that we offer.”

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