Telemedicine: more than just video chats
With so many practices turning to telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts share what it really means—and some key benefits of incorporating telehealth into veterinary practice.
The need for social distancing has many veterinary professionals pondering newer and safer ways to care for patients, including offering telehealth services. For some veterinarians, however, telemedicine is uncharted territory. How are appointments scheduled? What services can be offered? Should there be a charge?
To help address these concerns, the Viticus Group (formerly Western Veterinary Conference) recently hosted a Facebook Live discussion with telehealth experts Aaron Smiley, DVM, and Jessica Vogelsang, DVM. One of the key takeaways? Telemedicine is not limited to real-time video chats.
“Everyone assumes that telemedicine means a live video appointment, and that is not true,” said Dr. Vogelsang, owner of Pawcurious.
Dr. Smiley, who is chief of staff at both Devonshire Veterinary Clinic and Geist Station Animal Hospital in Indiana, wholeheartedly agreed, adding that what makes veterinary telemedicine so brilliant is that it functions perfectly while remaining asynchronous. “That means [sending] text messages, videos and pictures, which is so much more efficient for the client and the doctor,” he said. “From a 20-second video, I can get an amazing amount of perspective and the owner can do it on her time. That is key.”
Dr. Smiley advised veterinarians to establish telemedicine habits they can sustain long term. “Someday the pandemic is going to be gone, and when that day comes, if veterinary medicine is only doing synchronous telemedicine it is going to be very difficult to maintain because doctors are really busy,” he said.
Ideal telehealth patients
Without a doubt, the best types of clients to offer telehealth services to are those with whom you have an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship, Dr. Smiley said. As for which services to offer through telemedicine, he suggested virtual medical rechecks as a hospital’s first foray. Many times it is the ideal, convenient option for both the veterinarian and the pet owner.
“Inevitably, I wasn’t able to get my clients in for rechecks but I wanted to see how my therapy worked out,” he said. “I had always assumed no news was good news, but that is not always the case.” At his practice, Dr. Smiley bills the client for the recheck while they are at the office for the initial visit and requests that the pet owner send a video of the patient at a determined future date for the staff to assess.
Telemedicine is not a substitute for in-office appointments across the board, Dr. Smiley emphasized. “As the doctor, you are the expert,” he said. “You know when a dog needs to be physically touched.”
Don’t devalue your services
Hospitals that offers telemedicine must communicate to clients that it is still a specialized service and will be billed accordingly. “Sometimes veterinarians fail to value themselves as professionals,” Dr. Smiley admitted. This can result in misinterpreting a consultation or recheck as simply offering advice to a client, when in fact the veterinarian is providing a highly skilled service.
Dr. Smiley added that hospitals can—and should—continue to offer free telehealth services through its veterinary technicians and nurses. “Mrs. Jones can still call for a prescription refill or general advice, but if there is something that needs to be diagnosed, prognosed or prescribed, we’re going to roll the doctor in,” he explained.
Ask for help
Dr. Vogelsang added that in recent weeks, several veterinary professionals have told her they’re feeling overwhelmed [about telemedicine], but she reassures them that active measures are being taken by various groups to provide guidance for new adopters. She encourages first-time telemedicine users to rely on the experience and resources of the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association and the newly formed Veterinary Virtual Care Association.
“Don’t rush into anything if you’re not comfortable, and ask your colleagues for help,” she advised. “We have your back.”