Deciding to Implement Telemedicine: What Does Telehealth Provide that I Can't Provide in Person?

Author: Dr. Sarah Wallace, DVM

In the veterinary industry, time is fleeting, money is needed to provide and receive care and somehow we have to integrate empathy and the human-animal bond into our interactions. This complex puzzle that we call our workday begs the question of why you should even consider adding telehealth to your practice. 

  • With so little time to eat lunch or even use the bathroom, how do I have time for telehealth in my practice? 
  • If a client cannot pay for services, why should I spend time with them? 
  • When my appointment schedule is booked or overbooked, how could I even consider adding a telehealth service?

If I just convinced you not to read further, that was a mistake. If you give me another chance, I may be able to change your mind.

Access to Care

There are millions of pets in this country that receive no veterinary care at all every year. Every pet owner faces their own set of challenges when attempting to get their pet to a veterinary hospital or affording care. An exhaustive exploration of access to care in veterinary medicine can be accessed here. Examples of barriers to care include: owner health or disability, owner’s lack of (safe or any) transportation, distance to a veterinary hospital, cost of services, fear of the unknown, empathy for their pet’s previous veterinary experiences, and other barriers. 

If you do not believe that pets should have to survive without basic veterinary care, then providing access to care should be of interest. One way to address access to care is to get clients on board with a veterinary telehealth service. Telehealth will allow your team to interact with patients who cannot necessarily get to the veterinary hospital easily and directly addresses concerns about cost when you help that client triage a medical concern before requiring an in-person appointment. 

In a recent issue of Today’s Veterinary Business, an article was published on the declining number of feline visits to veterinary hospitals yearly. The article enumerates ways to bring felines back into your practice but leaves out a glaringly obvious solution: telemedicine. How many times have you heard “I only take my cat to the vet when they are sick.” Quite obviously, such a mentality deprives veterinarians of the ability to screen cats for health concerns and address any health conditions that pet parents may not consider a top priority, but can cause suffering or subsequent illness. If a practice utilizes and leverages telemedicine effectively, you could build trust with feline pet parents by checking in on their cat on a regular basis, ask questions and otherwise make sure that cat is not showing signs of illness. When you detect something of concern, educate the client and recommend a visit with your team. 

Chronic Care and Hospice

When a pet is diagnosed with a chronic medical condition, they need ongoing care. While some clients may willingly make appointments at the intervals you recommend, some clients cannot afford such care. When a client cannot afford gold standard care, the pet’s health may decline without a trained eye or without advice about the best course of action moving forward. How many patients do we have with Chronic Kidney Disease, Diabetes, IBD, cancer? How can we do right by those patients while we are getting paid for our time and expertise? Telehealth is an excellent way to keep track of these patients on a regular basis, and be able to recommend changes to treatments in time with changes to the pet’s condition. Set up a chronic care telehealth treatment plan with these clients to control cost while building trust and minimizing patient suffering. 

Follow-ups

Why do we follow up with our patients after a trip to your veterinary hospital? We follow up because we care, because we want to sleep better tonight than we did last night and because we want to build trust with our clients. A phone call is great – especially for baby boomers, an email is great for most anyone, a text message is great – especially for Millenials. Take the one extra step to make sure your patients are doing fine, especially after a major surgery or being released from hospitalization. Choosing to check on even the most minor of conditions shows that pet parent that you care about their furry family member. If a pet hasn’t yet recovered from their condition, use telehealth to continue to check on them at regular intervals until that medical condition has resolved. Build your reputation for being the veterinary hospital that truly cares by building telehealth protocols that follow pets until they return to health. 

Nutrition and Behavior 

During a 15 or 20 minute appointment, it is nearly impossible to do nutrition or behavior questions justice. The topics are too large, there are too many questions, too many possibilities. These topics need dedication, coaching and client understanding and commitment to be successful. These topics can be and have been successfully addressed using telehealth. Write protocols and standard recommendations for nutrition consultations. Leverage your team’s behavior-loving RVT and work with clients through behavioral questions, and training through telehealth. Build your client’s trust, support your clients’ human-animal bond and give these important topics the time they deserve. Add a revenue stream to your practice by training your RVTs to help clients with nutrition and behavior concerns through telehealth. 

In Conclusion 

To implement telehealth, one either needs to add work on to their team, or be smarter with how your team uses their time. Utilize teletriage to build trust with your clients – help them use their money wisely. Use the talents of your whole team, including your RVTs to triage, educate and partner with your clients. If instead of filling your appointment schedule with mildly sick pets who really only need in-home supportive care, and instead fill your books with pets who have utilized teletriage and need diagnostics, treatment, procedures or hospitalization, you will not only increase your daily net profits but also build trust with the clients you told to stay home. Clients need to know that you are an advocate for their pet as well as their pocketbook. 

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