The Rise of Telehealth in Veterinary Medicine

Cat on Video Call

For many veterinarians, telemedicine suddenly became popular as Covid-19 hit the shores of Australia.

With the overwhelming sense of unease and fear for how veterinary practice would continue in a safe and reliable manner, there seemed to be only two choices: 

One: split work teams and perform car park animal swap overs.

Two: purchase a telemedicine SAAS (software as a service) platform, receive little/to no training and start consulting online.

As someone who has performed telemedicine for the majority of my career as well as running a platform for veterinarians to engage with clients in this manner, I can completely empathise with the feeling of many vets who put telemedicine in the too hard basket, despite it actually not being new to them at all.

For many, the fear of telemedicine stems from a few areas:

  1. The time to research setting up new systems – technology, website, apps
  2. Marketing the service – telling your clients that you are now offering this service for a fee
  3. Determining a schedule that will fit into your clinic’s opening hours
  4. Being unsure of the legalities of offering advice to a client who is not in your presence
  5. Feeling that you restricted in what you can advise a client because you haven’t got the patient in front of you.

I can see why it left many veterinarians dreading the idea and having a general reluctance to embrace telemedicine full stop.

But it doesn’t need to be like this. Let me explain in more detail.

Do I Need A Dedicated Telehealth Platform To Practice Consults Effectively?

Thankfully for veterinarians, we are not governed by the same restrictions that our human medical counterparts are.

This means that as long as we ensure that we handle personal information correctly as we would in our normal practice (clients are informed of a Privacy Policy), then we don’t require specific software as such.

Remember that not all software is created equal. Here are the key areas that you may wish to consider prior to choosing a system:

1. Is a download required for your client?

We’ve all been there when we have no space left on our phone/pc for a download. Well you don’t want this to happen with your client. The simpler the process the better. A link click is all you need.

2. How user friendly is the system for you?

Ideally, you want a system that you can log in easily from phone and pc. The best systems are logical and don’t require specific on-boarding and training.

3. Does the system allow you to use chat only and only turn video on if required?

Many times, especially in rural areas, video slows down the system and it’s difficult to run a consult without connection issues. Using chat only and switching to video only when required can help solve this issue.

4. Can you and clients upload photos, videos and files?

Many people cannot coordinate themselves to video their animal and talk at the same time. Advising an owner to take videos and photos pre-consult can help save time and frustration.

There are many more features that are on offer, but these are added extras and for many veterinarians, they are surplus to requirements.

What Problems Are Suited To Telemedicine Consults?

As someone who has solely been practicing telemedicine for the past 5 years I can categorically tell you that any question can be answered via a telemedicine consult.

The key here is to remember that the client is ringing for advice and not necessarily a diagnosis.

Even if you are called by someone whose animal must be seen in person, you can still offer valuable advice.

Take a consult I performed recently where a client was concerned about their male cat who was struggling to urinate.

Not only will your questioning determine the need for that cat to seek urgent veterinary care, you can prepare that client for the process that will likely occur, offering huge value in the process:

  • Your cat will likely receive blood tests to check electrolyte status
  • Your cat will likely need an anaesthetic to facilitate unblocking the urethra
  •  Your cat will likely need to receive fluids and pain relief and may need to stay in hospital.

In this case, as is the case with many other consults, even if you don’t have the answers – you don’t need them. Your advice can result in an animal receiving appropriate veterinary care sooner than later, improving animal welfare.

What Are The Regulations For Performing Telemedicine In Australia?

I recommend that all vets considering telemedicine check their state’s Veterinary Act and Code of Conduct. 

For the most part there are no specific legal regulations for the provision of telemedicine by veterinarians, meaning that the laws relating to being a vet in general, stand. 

Remember, much of what we do can be scrutinised by what our peers view as appropriate. Essentially, if brought before the Vet Board and your colleagues viewed a case performed online to be negligent, then you could be held liable. This is not restrictive to telemedicine.

As an aside, it is important to check with your insurance provider that you are covered for both professional indemnity and public liability.

Keep an eye out for our next article where I will be discussing some of the considerations you need to make when running a telemedicine consult.

Dr Leigh Davidson BVSc, BApplSc

Dr Leigh Davidson is the founder of Your Vet Online, a 24 hour online platform connecting animal owners with vets. Dr Leigh is a veterinarian with 20 years experience in small animal, equine and farm medicine, pharmaceutical consultancy and business ownership and loves nothing more than helping people learn more about their pets so they can give them the healthiest and happiest life possible.

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