Telemedicine and telehealth are essential tools that veterinarians and their clients can leverage to improve the health of their pets, reported William DeKay of The Western Producer, a Canadian news platform dedicated to farmers.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives, the use of telehealth and telemedicine for diagnosing and treating animals is gaining traction considering social distancing and other public health measures.
Knowledge and Use of Telehealth Among Veterinarians (2019)
Kylie Watson and colleagues of open access publisher BMC wrote in their journal article that 76 veterinarians participated in the research, collecting both qualitative and quantitative analyses. 76 responded in the survey, sending the surveys to 282 veterinarians. The objective of the study was to assess the knowledge, as well as the utilization of telehealth and telemedicine by veterinarians.
Watson and colleagues found that the largest age demographic was 41-50 years (25%). 60.5% were males and 92.1% identified themselves as White/Caucasians. About 40% of the participants said they work at clinics that earned an average of $1,000,000 to $5,000,000 gross annual income. The practices done by veterinarians were private (60.5%) and either companion animal exclusive (57.9%) or companion animal predominant (15.8%).
Suburban practices were the most common (55.3%) along with rural (31.6%) and urban (6.6%). 60.5% identified themselves as practice owners while 14.5% identified themselves as associate veterinarians. When asked, “How would you define telehealth,” the question (#10) had an 81.6% response rate. Based on the responses, five themes emerged: “telecommunication” (55.3%), “remote interaction” (35.5%), “Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)-DVM interaction” (13.2%), “DVM-client interaction” (29.0%), and “DVM-patient services” (46.1%).
Telecommunication referred to responses involving technology platforms like video, phone, and more. Remote interaction involved responses referring to distance, a lack of hands-on medicine or physical exam, and the like.
Communication between veterinarians was called DVM-DVM interaction, while DVM-client interaction referred to responses involving an exchange between a veterinarian and a client. DVM-patient services pertained to a response involving medical services performed by a veterinarian like patient healthcare, treatment, diagnosis, and prescription.
The question (#12), “How would you define telemedicine?” had a 71.1% response rate. Five themes emerged from the responses: “telecommunication” (31.6%), “remote interaction” (25.0%), “DVM-DVM interaction” (4.0%), “DVM-client interaction” (15.8%), and “DVM-patient services” (34.2%).
The theme “accessibility/improvements to healthcare?” (10.5%) referred to responses that mention the ease of access to medical care was also present in the above-mentioned question. The theme “same as telehealth” (11.8%) pertained to responses in which the participant believed that telehealth and telemedicine are identical.
With regard to the utilization of telehealth, 21.1% said they sometimes utilized it and 19.7% never utilized it. With telemedicine, 22.4% said they sometimes utilized it and 19.7% never utilized telemedicine. When asked about the selected platforms specifically used to advise clients, in-person was the most frequently selected platform for general advice to an established client (61.8%), medical advice to an established client with a new patient (60.5%), and medical advice to a non-client (42.1%).
44.7% said the phone was the most frequently selected platform for general advice to a non-client and medical advice to an established client with a previously seen patient (60.5%). It is important for veterinarians to understand telehealth services in practice due to the increase in digital ICTs, the researchers concluded. Additionally, the authors observed a lack of knowledge of telehealth and telemedicine as well as how it is utilized among the surveyed veterinarians.
Defining Telehealth and Telemedicine
Telehealth refers to the overarching term that comprises all uses of technology aimed at remotely offering health education, information, or care, explained Mia Car, DVM, and Aaron Massecar, Ph.D. of Today’s Veterinary Practice, an official journal of the NAVC (North American Veterinary Community). On the other hand, telemedicine is a subcategory of the former which refers to a tool or use of a tool to enhance the practice of veterinary medicine.
For example, a vet can use Skype or any platform to talk with the client and visualize the animal patient for a post-operative follow-up examination and discussion. Meanwhile, teleconsulting is another subcategory of telehealth in which a vet uses telehealth tools to communicate with a veterinary specialist to gain insights and receive advice regarding the care of the client’s pet
Veterinarians Utilize Technology to Offer Medical Services
Dr. Tara Risling of Cochrane Animal Clinic receives tons of emails, texts, and videos for several weeks at her mixed animal practice in Cochrane, Alta, Canada. The clinic conducts three-quarters of its business with companion animals and the remaining 25% is done in large animal care. Dr. Risling said, “People are really calling and asking the questions — this is what’s going on, do you need to see the animal or not? And then we’ve been choosing the appropriate path.”
Clients are not allowed to stay inside the clinic. Rather, they are met in the parking lot by a technician where they gather information and the animal is dropped off if needed. The pets are processed using a triage system, striking a balance between the most critical ill and ill animals along with a first-come, first-served system.
How about the large animal care? There have not been changes since telemedicine was already widely utilized, notably at cattle operations, noted Dr. Kent Weir of Weir Veterinary Services in Lloydminster, a city in Canada.
Since beef operations get larger and more ubiquitous, mobile phones are the top choice for relaying communication between the vet and client. For instance, large animal veterinarian Dr. Nathan Erickson narrated that he starts off his day by checking the images that clients have sent to him.
Dr. Erickson has observed an increase in telemedicine with clients— especially those who own companion animals. Apparently, these were the same clients who did not use telemedicine prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. He added, “There’s more consultation going on over the phone right now with clients trying to figure out, ‘OK, can this wait a little while or can you just provide maybe a urine sample or a fecal sample or something like that and bring it in?”
Speeding Up and Augmenting Veterinarians’ Operations
Phil Buote, complaints director and deputy registrar from the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, said that telemedicine is not a representation of a huge shift or a completely alternate method of providing veterinary medicine. Rather, telemedicine will be leveraged to complement the work of veterinarians.
Weir acknowledged that the negative impacts of COVID-19 are being minimized thanks to modern communication technologies that enable the use of telemedicine. He added, “It’s huge. Twenty years ago, it would have made things a lot more difficult. It’d be very challenging to perform any kind of accurate telemedicine.”
Telehealth and telemedicine help veterinarians communicate with their clients using video calling platforms and other digital technologies. Whether there is a pandemic or not, veterinarians should be aware of how modern technologies can be leveraged in delivering veterinary medicine to their clients.