3 ways your veterinary practice can get started in telemedicine

May 28, 2019
Hannah Wagle, Associate Content Specialist

Its time to turn those late-night texts from all sorts of characters who own pets into a lucrative opportunity for your veterinary team. Heres how.

Stacee Santi, DVM, wants to know if this sounds familiar: “Hello Stacee,” she reads from her phone in a recent Fetch dvm360 session. “I have a border collie mix. His nose turned horrible. It clears up just like my allergies but when it starts back up it gets bad. What can I do for him?”

“So,” Dr. Santi tells attendees, “I responded like any veterinarian. ‘Who is this?'”

It was a man she'd gone to high school with, named Rodney, who followed his short re-introduction with a photo of his dog's nose that would make any self-respecting veterinarian shake their head in dismay. The rest of the conversation went like this:

Dr. S: This is an auto-immune disease that is in a very aggressive state. He needs some high-powered medication.

Rodney: Last time, [my vet] didn't suggest anything other than I just watch it. [The Fetch dvm360 attendees roll their eyes practically in unison at this one.]

Dr. S: I'm sure this isn't what it looked like last time.

Rodney: Wish you were closer.

“Isn't that weird?” she asks attendees, who chuckle. “I spent a lot of time wondering, ‘Why did he message me? And why does he wish I was closer?' I haven't talked to him in 20-some years!”

Which, of course, is the crux of telemedicine: trustworthiness, accessibility and affordability are all reasons why a classmate you haven't seen for two decades would text you about his dog's funky nose. They're also the reasons why telemedicine is such a smart move. But how can veterinary teams (as in you!) start charging for those type of services? Dr. Santi, creator of the Vet2Pet mobile app for veterinary practices, has a few ideas.

1. Create doctor office hours

The doctors in your practice have been taking phone calls from clients for years. Do you charge? Oftentimes not, but how do you start charging for something that's been free for your clients for so long? Here's where a telemedicine twist can come into play.

Dr. Santi's idea is to tell your clients that your practice has a new service: “doctor office hours,” where your veterinarian is willing to advise clients on the phone for one hour on certain days of the week, for a small fee. “This is a way you could dip your toe in the water and introduce this idea,” Dr. Santi explains. You might run into a few snags along the way, but you can work through them as you figure out how telehealth fits overall in your practice.

Make sure you're giving a proper sendoff

Dr. Stacee Santi says there's one overarching reason that pet owners text veterinary team members after an appointment about their pet's condition: they didn't understand everything at the end of the visit.

The solution? Improve your client dismissal protocol. “We need to look at our dismissal systems and make sure we're giving the proper information,” she says. “Because the truth is, people will only remember 32% of what you tell them.”

This can be fixed with relatively simple measures, like asking if the client has any remaining questions, or asking the client questions to gauge whether they understand home care and next steps.

2. Decide which case-and client-is right for telemedicine

Jack, one of Dr. Santi's favorite patients, is a standard black poodle who's missing all of his teeth after an incident involving a children's baseball game. “And then,” she tells attendees, “for some random reason he decided to get a heart arrhythmia with a case of [hemorrhagic gastroenteritis]-we spent several nights together there. He also got bitten by a rattlesnake-Jack and I are so close-and then Jack got a mast cell tumor.”

Jack's owner works for a big pharmaceutical company, and her husband is a firefighter. They're raising three children, and they have little time for in-person appointments with the veterinarian. “She's the kind of client I'm very comfortable doing telemedicine with,” Dr. Santi says. “I can jump on a call with her, I can have her send me pictures, I can have her video me. There's no question that Jack isn't coming in; I just need to know how much time I need to block off to talk with them.”

To make the best decisions on who is and who isn't a great candidate, Dr. Santi has three criteria: duration of the condition (acute cases are better suited for telemedicine than chronic, Dr. Santi says), severity (“You vomited twice? I can deal. You vomited 12 times? You're coming in.”) and ease for you and your client (as in, a client who trusts you and you trust back, and good availability to schedule meetings with).  

3. Make a game plan

Trying to implement telemedicine overnight in your veterinary practice can backfire. Dr. Santi says the best thing a veterinary team can do is make a plan that works for their hospital and execute it systematically. After all, not one size fits all.

“You can't just roll it out, piece by piece, and call it good,” she says. “You need to think about what your plan is. You need to think about making announcements, creating brochures. You need to educate-you should let that woman with the fat Lab on her lap know during her wellness exam that you have these services available.”

“I've practiced for 20 years,” Dr. Santi tells attendees. “I'm just like you; I know what it's like.” Which is why she understands that veterinary telemedicine is a big idea to wrap your head-and heart-around. But it's easier than it looks, and most veterinary practices who've been successful in telehealth started small.

“You can do it!” Dr. Santi says.