The rapid rise of veterinary telehealth

July 29, 2020
Andrea De La Cerda

Volume 115, Issue 8

If 2020 has taught veterinarians anything, it’s that they need to be ready to adapt if they want to stay competitive.

Nobody saw the COVID-19 outbreak coming. It didn’t take long for conditions to escalate and veterinary clinics all over the country to shift from having a bright outlook for the start of a brand new decade to dealing some of the most crippling business challenges they have ever faced.

Fortunately, a majority of the industry has been quick to course-correct, finding ways to continue serving clients while also complying with social-distancing protocols, including offering curbside care and medication pickup, and collecting patient histories electronically before appointments. But nothing tells the story of how veterinarians quickly adapted to changing protocols and consumer demands than the rapid adoption of telehealth during the pandemic.

This article explores the sudden spike in veterinary telehealth, the long-term outlook of the trend, and what practice owners need to be doing in tandem with these changes to propel their practices forward.

COVID-19: The catalyst for growth

Over the past decade, considerable strides have been made in the advancement of telemedicine, yet healthcare providers and consumers alike have been slow to adopt this trend on a large scale, and the veterinary industry is no exception. The authors of a December 2019 survey study reported “a lack of both knowledge of telehealth and telemedicine and its utilization among veterinarians surveyed.”1

Soon after this study was published, COVID-19 completely shifted the momentum. Veterinarians who might have otherwise been slow or resistant to try telemedicine were suddenly thrust into a situation in which they needed this tool to continue serving their clientele.

Telehealth platform Medici reported a 48% increase in overall veterinarian registration in March and a 170% increase in pet telehealth consultations month over month.2 Industry experts say this trend is likely to stick around even after the pandemic has ended, especially as clients become accustomed to the convenience of remote appointments.

Of course, the accelerated growth of telehealth in veterinary practice would not have been possible if, due to COVID-19, state and federal governments had not eased certain restrictions that typically exist for veterinarians.

A changing regulatory landscape

In response to the coronavirus crisis, the Food and Drug Administration announced in March that it would temporarily suspend enforcement of certain aspects of the laws surrounding veterinary telemedicine to make it easier for veterinarians to treat animals during the pandemic.3 Specifically, the agency decided to overlook the rule that requires veterinary clinicians to establish the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) through in-person examination before prescribing medications and issuing feed directives through remote consultations. Temporary relaxation of this requirement made it easier for clinics to treat animals remotely during COVID-19.

The pandemic has also left state veterinary boards reexamining their requirements on telemedicine.4 Some states are temporarily adjusting their own VCPR and other requirements for veterinary telemedicine, while others are standing by previous standards. In addition, some state veterinary associations have been finding ways to expand the telehealth resources available to their members. The New York State Veterinary Medical Society has partnered with TeleTails as its exclusive virtual care platform,2 for example, and the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association has partnered with the veterinary telehealth service Petriage.2

While it is unclear how long the federal and state governments will continue to loosen their restrictions in response to COVID-19, the fact is that the industry and world at large are starting to see what regulatory circumstances may be more conducive to the practice of telemedicine by veterinary care providers. Not only does veterinary telehealth help bridge the gap in care during challenging times like the pandemic, but it also provides a higher level of convenience for pet owners, as well as potential time and cost savings for practice owners.

With that being said, it is possible we are headed into a future that encourages veterinarians to offer telehealth services, whether through fewer regulatory restrictions (for states that may decide to change their policies permanently), increased education, improved access to telehealth platforms, and/or partnerships. These factors could help make telehealth more of a mainstay with fewer barriers to adoption, similar to what we see in the human healthcare sector.5

What it means for your practice

The key point to remember is that telehealth is not going away. So, it’s important to be thinking about how this aspect of care fits into your long-term practice plan and begin adjusting your business and marketing strategies accordingly. Here are three tactics to keep in mind when designing your telehealth business model.

Offer telehealth services.

The COVID-19 climate has given veterinary clinics the chance to get their feet wet with telehealth, laying down the foundation to make it a part of their permanent business models. Even after all shelter-in-place and social distancing orders are lifted and veterinary clinics have resumed normal business operations, many will continue offering telehealth services, so you will want to be a practice that is ahead of the curve. Offering telehealth enables you to provide more convenient options for patient care, making you that much more desirable as a choice for veterinary services.

Start by researching the guidelines for telehealth in your state, and look for a platform that can help you streamline your virtual consultations for various types of electronic communications, from videoconferencing and telephone calls to text and email communication.

Promote your telehealth services.

Never assume current or prospective clients know about your telehealth services. Instead, use a variety of online channels to inform them about these services and how they can get started.

Make this service offering highly visible on your website by featuring it on your homepage. If your site has an FAQ page, be sure to include information about your telehealth services there as well. You can also share details on social media, in emails and phone calls to clients, on your blog (sharing the general benefits of telehealth for veterinary care), and elsewhere.

Create telehealth-focused ads.

If you’re running pay-per-click ads on a search engine (e.g., Google, Bing), you may want to consider using keywords (e.g., telehealth vet, telemedicine vet) that potential clients might use when searching for a clinic that offers virtual veterinary care. You can also highlight your telehealth services in other advertising campaigns, such as display ads you run on social media. By taking these extra steps, you can be discovered by pet owners who are seeking more convenient methods of care for their pets while maximizing your exposure and driving more business to your practice.

Looking ahead

As we move toward the end of 2020, it’s time to think about how you may need to adjust your business model to account for changing trends and new client expectations. As the conversation and climate surrounding veterinary telemedicine and technology continue to evolve, so should your strategy. Make sure your practice is prepared!

Andrea De La Cerda leads Scorpion’s strategy for the medical team and enjoys educating practice owners about digital marketing solutions designed to grow their businesses. She has worked with over 100 organizations to create stronger brands, evaluate the latest online strategies, and create solutions for clients that help them stand out in the market, attract top talent, and drive revenue.

References

  1. Watson K, Wells J, Sharma M, et al. A survey of knowledge and use of telehealth among veterinarians. BMC Vet Res. 2019;15(474). doi: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-019-2219-8
  2. Barrett S. Vet telehealth surges as first U.S. pets test positive for coronavirus. CNBC. Published April 23, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/23/vet-telehealth-surges-as-first-us-pets-test-positive-for-coronavirus.html
  3. Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: FDA helps facilitate veterinary telemedicine during pandemic. FDA. Published March, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-helps-facilitate-veterinary-telemedicine-during-pandemic
  4. Fiala J. Veterinarians turn to telemedicine amid COVID-19. Veterinary Information Network. Published April 12, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2020. news.vin.com/doc/?id=9581538.
  5. Wuest P. Telemedicine emerges as a care option for veterinary patients. Today’s Veterinary Practice. Accessed July 29, 2020. https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/telemedicine-emerges-as-a-care-option-for-veterinary-patients/
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