FDA loosens veterinary telemedicine restrictions amid COVID-19 crisis

March 31, 2020
dvm360 Staff

The agency is temporarily suspending enforcement of certain aspects of the federal veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) requirements, but state requirements remain in force.

To continue caring for patients while maintaining social distance during the COVID-19 crisis, many healthcare providers have turned to telemedicine services, but what about veterinarians?

In its efforts to provide flexibility during this critical time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it’s temporarily easing telemedicine requirements for veterinarians so they, too, can use this service to augment patient care during the pandemic, according to an agency release.

“The FDA recognizes the vital role veterinarians play in protecting public health … and during this time, we need to provide veterinarians with the latitude to expand the use of telemedicine in the care of animals, not only pets but also the animals that produce our food,” says FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, in the release.

“The FDA is providing flexibility that will help veterinarians maintain the health of animals during the pandemic, while allowing for the social distancing that is so important in limiting the further spread of coronavirus disease across the country and the world,” Dr. Hahn adds.

What is changing?

According to current federal and state regulations, before veterinarians can provide telemedicine services they must physically examine an animal and/or make medically appropriate and timely visits to the location where the animal is kept. In other words, the VCPR definition cannot be fulfilled with telemedicine alone.

During this crisis, however, the FDA “generally does not intend to enforce the animal examination and premises visit portion of the VCPR requirements relevant to the FDA regulations governing extralabel drug use in animals and veterinary feed directive (VFD) drugs,” according to the release.

Relaxing these federal regulations will allow veterinarians to prescribe extralabel drugs or authorize the use of VFD drugs without having to first examine the animals, in turn limiting the interactions between veterinarians and other people and decreasing the potential community spread of COVID-19.

For example, a client can send a video of their sick dog to their veterinarian and, if necessary, the veterinarian can prescribe drugs extralabelly, says the FDA. Or, a veterinarian could remotely examine and diagnose a group of food-producing animals with a skin disease, and then authorize the use of certain drugs in the animals’ feed.

What does it mean for small animal practitioners?

This action comes at a time when veterinarians are trying to ramp up the use of telemedicine so they can continue to care for animals while protecting the health of their employees and the public, says dvm360 Chief Veterinary Officer Adam Christman, DVM, MBA. “But the reality is that while relaxing these regulations is beneficial for food animal producers, it doesn't really change much for the small animal general practitioner,” he says.

“An established VCPR—having physically seen the animal within the past 12 months—remains a requirement for practicing telemedicine in most cases,” Dr. Christman continues. In other words, a veterinarian still must physically examine a patient before prescribing any medication that is labeled for dogs or cats.