Virtual Care? Telehealth? Telemedicine? Teletriage? These terms have been a hot topic throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telehealth or virtual care is the process of accessing remote care, online or digitally. Telemedicine is geared towards the practice of medicine (in our case, veterinary medicine), from a remote distance, when the patient and provider are not in the same physical location. In the veterinary profession, telemedicine has stood the test of time, being used initially through phone calls, then emails and text, and recently through video. As technology improves, so does our connection with our clientele and our patients.
Generations X, Y, and Z are accustomed to these advancements in technology and have grown up with these changes. Millennials and gen Z have come to expect it and this trend will continue. When it comes to visiting their veterinarian, a trip to the clinic can often be time-consuming and inconvenient. For the patient, it can be quite stressful. If the client has to leave their pets in clinic for an extended period of time, receiving text updates and photos from their vet can make a difficult situation more manageable. It has become second nature to communicate through our smart phones, and successful clinics are adapting to this by embracing virtual care. As well, pet owners appreciate having more ways to connect with their veterinarian.
COVID-19 has been the impetus of change for many reasons, including the use of virtual care.
A trip to the clinic often involves close contact with several people, which is a concern amidst a pandemic, where social distancing is the new normal. While often necessary, sharing an exam room with 1-2 veterinary personnel for 30+ minutes while wearing a mask, isn’t an ideal situation. Having a method for pet owners to connect with their veterinarian remotely, provides peace of mind, while also allowing veterinarians to monetize their professional expertise.
When discussing virtual care in a clinic setting, it is helpful to break it down and categorize it into buckets.
Bucket #1: General information. Resources that pet owners can access on the clinic’s website or through connecting with client care. This could be intake forms, helpful links, videos, FAQ’s.
Bucket #2: Triage. Any clinic team member that communicates with a pet owner through remote means to triage and determine if an appointment or trip the ER is needed.
Bucket #3: Telemedicine. There are two main types of telemedicine, known as synchronous and asynchronous.
Synchronous telemedicine is when a schedule time with a veterinarian or technician is booked. This can be through a video or audio consultation and is a dedicated time to connect.
Asynchronous telemedicine is through messaging. This is a very common and appealing form of telemedicine as it allows the clients and veterinary professionals the freedom to respond when it is convenient for them.
Leveraging these forms of virtual care can really boost a clinics efficiency and revenue. Most clinics are very busy and often understaffed. They don’t have capacity to handle more calls, emails, requests. Burnout is another serious issue in the veterinary industry with more and more professionals leaving the industry, sometimes only after a few years. Veterinarians and hospital managers should be looking for ways to improve efficiencies in their practice, reducing the burden on their support staff and improving the overall job satisfaction. Adopting aspects of virtual care can certainly be one way to do this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been coming in waves and has had an impact on clinics, with some having to close completely. Most clinics are adopting a curbside approach, encouraging owners to stay in their vehicles and wait for a phone call from their vet to carry out the appointment while communicating remotely over the phone. Vets and pet owners then start to question, what can be managed through telemedicine? The answer is, more than you think. Some examples include behaviour, nutrition, training, mild GI issues, some skin conditions, some prescription refills, quality of life discussions, post adoption questions, and many more.
Veterinarians are busy professionals and may feel they don’t have the time to introduce a new service. However, through the use of virtual care, vets can prioritize more urgent in-clinic appointments, seeing a large caseload of paid virtual consultations. Setting up a telemedicine service may seem daunting, but it shouldn’t be. I think of it as a way to reduce some of the back and forth phone calls and constant influx of free emails and messages. Telemedicine has stood the test of time, and it’s use will only increase.