Telemedicine has been available to pet owners for a few years now; however, 2020 has seen a significant uptake in its usage. This is in no small part due to the lockdown restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19, which has led pet owners to seek out new ways to access veterinary care.
The demand from pet owners for remote consultations has continued to grow, even whilst lockdown restrictions were eased during the summer months. The increased risks associated with venturing out of the house, together with a reduction in services in physical clinics and long distances to clinics, particularly in rural areas, play a part in this rising demand. Virtual appointments allow owners to get advice and help in a matter of minutes, instead of the proverbial “Google search”.
This shift is beneficial for pets, owners and veterinary teams. Pet telehealth is one style of working which enables vets to work more flexibly, meaning that continuity of patient care can be maintained alongside other priorities and work commitments.
Take, for example, my colleague Louise Cox-O’Shea who feels that pet telehealth is very much the future of the veterinary profession, and will soon become an integral part of animal healthcare. By consulting remotely, she is still able to conduct clinical examinations and take histories to triage and reassure worried pet parents, but she is also able to take a variety of morning, daytime and evening shifts, giving a nice mix of clients and fitting perfectly around family life.
This style of working goes part of the way to providing the necessary work–life integration that has long been sought by many veterinary staff. The RCVS 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Profession stated that “work–life balance within the profession, or rather the lack of it, and a need for increased considerations around flexible working, out-of-hours service, and work load” were some of the key concerns within the profession.
That isn’t to say that working remotely works for everyone. Whilst flexibility is a large draw, the switch to a virtual platform doesn’t always come overnight. Not being able to use all of your senses and do a hands-on physical examination to gather clinical information via video is an unusual, and sometimes frustrating, experience. You rely on the owner to provide information that you are used to smelling, feeling or hearing yourself, and you therefore learn how to guide the owner more effectively to perform an assessment of their pet. You also rely on your sight, so a good-quality camera, a high-resolution screen, a well-lit room and a stable internet connection are essential.
Often, consultations have one of two outcomes: we are able to offer the required advice or simple treatment, such as salt-water bathing and anti-lick protection for a superficial skin abrasion, to resolve the issue. Or, we are able to refer the pet to a physical clinic for further assessment, for example, acute eye problems and wound investigation.
As such, the choice between telemedicine and in-person clinics is not a binary decision for vets; far from it. Clinical experience is key to learning how best to deliver a remote service and will guide your decision making. Vets are encouraged to work in physical clinics alongside telemedicine software. It is also important to remember that virtual consultations cannot include full physical examinations. Teleconsultations cannot replace the need to visit a clinic, but they can work in tandem to enhance the clinical care chain for pets, in turn helping to ease the load on vets that are working in-clinic, allowing them to focus on clinical investigations and surgical procedures.
Having worked in the pet telehealth sector for two years now, I believe that telemedicine offers a fantastic opportunity for vets and vet nurses to use their skills in a different way, and to gain new skills. Technology is an important part of the future, and I believe that it won’t be long before universities begin to incorporate remote consulting resources into their courses. I also believe that it will become an integral part of practice management systems. The upcoming RCVS “under care” review will provide essential guidance to help to integrate remote consulting appropriately in practice. While we await the outcomes of this review, knowledge and experience of telemedicine is progressing in the field. Veterinary staff are continuing to learn how remote consultations are best delivered, and it is exciting to be part of that journey.