By Sophie Bile, Student Veterinarian at the Ontario Veterinary College
As a student veterinarian who has recently completed my first year at the Ontario Veterinary College, my exposure to Telemedicine and the development of telehealth tools has been limited. Like many veterinary students and practicing veterinarians, my understanding - through my academic education and clinical shadowing - of what specific practices are actually considered to be ‘Telemedicine’ led me to believe that this branch of veterinary medicine was still very new with very few resources to pull from. I was right about half of that statement.
Despite the fact that veterinary telemedicine is still somewhat behind human telemedicine, there are dozens of companies that have developed tools that have direct applications to clinical animal health. Even more surprising is that unbeknownst to them, nearly every veterinarian with a cellphone or computer has practiced Telemedicine at least once. Telemedicine covers a broad range of applications, from email or text messaging with clients to live video-conferencing with owners and even sending digital diagnostics to other veterinarians. All fall into the same category of Telemedicine.
With this realization, I decided to make my focus this summer to understand why the majority of the veterinary health sector lacks the proper understanding of Telemedicine and to promote the application and integration of telehealth tools into practice, in order to improve animal health care. I had the opportunity to work with the Veterinary Innovation Council (VIC) whose mandate is to lead innovation in global animal health.
"What I came to learn was that many veterinarians were open to using emerging telehealth tools and were in fact already using telemedicine through personal texts and emails, without even knowing it was telemedicine."
Throughout the summer, I have had the opportunity to meet with many successful veterinarians within my community of Guelph, Ontario and gather their opinions on telemedicine and where they see the future of veterinary medicine heading. What I came to learn was that many veterinarians were open to using emerging telehealth tools and were in fact already using telemedicine through personal texts and emails, without even knowing it was telemedicine. The implementation gap therefore was not caused by a lack of interest in the veterinary community, but rather a lack of understanding of the tools available and a general uncertainty of how this would affect their business. I then understood why an organization like the VIC is so crucial to the telehealth movement. There could be dozens of effective and well-run telehealth companies available to veterinarians but, without the proper education regarding the benefit of these tools, veterinary professionals are going to miss out on industry-changing opportunities and eventually, find themselves struggling to play catch-up with the rest of the industry.
From meeting with practicing veterinarians, the main concerns surrounding telemedicine are how clients will respond to these new services and if the effort to incorporate new technologies will actually have tangible benefits for their practice. Veterinarians are afraid that offering services to their clients at an additional charge will only add to the stigma of ‘greedy veterinary clinics’ and leave pet owners with the impression that their concerns are no longer important enough to merit a face-to-face appointment. One way we have considered addressing these concerns is to introduce new services initially as a part of an existing ‘Wellness Package’ so clients are able to benefit from the telehealth service at no additional charge. This would additionally allow vets to test-run the service before they begin charging clients so they can also better speak to the value. There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that clients who use veterinary-based telehealth services are more likely to come into the clinic for other pet-related problems as opposed to looking to unreliable sources for answers, such as Dr. Google. This in turn strengthens the relationship and trust between veterinarian and pet owner.
"telehealth technology can improve clinic efficiency on a day-to-day basis and allow staff to work up to their potential"
In terms of perceivable benefits to the practice, telehealth technology can improve clinic efficiency on a day-to-day basis and allow staff to work up to their potential. Many telehealth services allow clinics to outsource client questions to licensed veterinarians outside the practice, which saves the clinic staff time and allows for the prioritization of severe cases for in-clinic appointments. Clients are able to call a reputable service and receive immediate and trusted medical advice regarding an issue with their pet that they aren’t sure is serious enough to warrant a trip to the vet.
In terms of what the future of veterinary telemedicine could look like, I believe there is going to be an exponential increase in the use of telehealth tools, as veterinarians become better educated on the benefits associated with their use and clients have an increased demand for access to remote medical services for their pets. Services such as 24/7 veterinary information systems, electronic diagnostic tests that provide same-day results, app-based triaging before appointments, live video chat for follow-up appointments, and access to instant text and photo messaging between owner and veterinarians will eventually become standard and expected practice across the veterinary community. From an academic perspective, veterinary education will need to shift to incorporate the proper use and understanding of the benefits of telehealth tools in a successful veterinary business. Pet owners today are paying more than ever on veterinary services, partly due to an increase in the amount and quality of services available and the evolved perception that pets are increasingly viewed as members of the family rather than property. Despite the initial resistance from practitioners and clients that comes with any kind of change in an industry, all parties will come to appreciate the improvements in animal health care that come with effectively using telehealth technologies. At the root of it all, it is a common love for the well-being of animals that drives the veterinary industry and if there are faster, more effective and highly accessible tools to diagnose and treat animals, it is not hard to embrace this change.