By Dr Silvia Janska
According to McKinsey and Company, new analysis shows that human telehealth use has increased 38X from the pre-Covid baseline. We too have seen an increase in veterinary telehealth, which peaked during the pandemic. I believe that there is a good place for telehealth in veterinary clinical practice, but have we taken full advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to us? I remember my clinical director telling me that if the strict lockdown continued for a bit longer, perhaps we would have better adjusted to the use of telehealth and maintain its use thereafter. During the lockdown, I used telehealth as a chargeable service. Alas, after the first lockdown, phone time with my equine clients once again became free.
I wanted to gather some insight about where we are at with veterinary telehealth, and what are some of the current attitudes and opportunities for the future. To answer my questions, I asked a good friend and colleague of mine, Dr Jessica May, the Global Veterinary Innovation Manager at FirstVet, to share her experience.
Where are we at with telehealth in the UK currently?
Telehealth has been used in veterinary practice for decades; typically, practitioners have used a variety of mediums to deliver clinical care to their client’s animals, including phone and email. We are now at a very exciting time point in the evolution of telehealth. The past two years have given us all the chance to challenge our traditional ways of working and shown how agile we can be. This has also given us a unique opportunity to try new systems. We have gained significant experience in the use of remote consulting. This has taken numerous forms. It has shown us how to innovate to provide our patients with enhanced care. Better utilization of clinic teams and resource efficiency also supports workflows and a healthy workplace.
How have the perceptions of telehealth changed in the past few years?
There have been mixed opinions about telehealth during the past few years. The pandemic gave veterinary professionals the opportunity to develop a broader understanding of remote consulting and its multiple facets. As a result, opinions are now based on much more experience. In general, there has been a shift towards a positive outlook on telehealth. We are also learning about the nuances; where telehealth can and cannot improve patient care journeys. The conversation is much further advanced in human medicine; for example, the ATA (American Telemedicine Association) has Special Interest Groups. These groups explore particular subject areas within telehealth with a range of stakeholders from across the industry to inform current and future practices.
What behaviours do you see vet practices adapting about the use of telehealth now that we are coming out of all the pandemic restrictions?
Individual clinics are deciding if and how they continue to deliver remote support to their clients, or whether to outsource work to other service providers in the veterinary ecosystem. There is much greater awareness of remote health care amongst owners so there is a demand for more convenient veterinary support. The immediacy of setting up remote consulting during the pandemic means that some systems will require revision. Teams may also require additional training. In order to adapt to greater use of telehealth it is important to test a variety of potential solutions and create policies in order to leverage the opportunities that telehealth brings.
Where do you see the biggest opportunities to utilise telehealth in clinical veterinary practice?
There are a number of key opportunities for veterinary telehealth. Several to highlight here are that: 1) Accessibilityto healthcare is very important. Telehealth is one of the ways in which we can bring veterinary care to closer pets and pet parents. Segments, such as cats and exotics, may be better served with lower-stress vet interface options and more visibility into their husbandry. 2) Telehealth can also be used to deliver preventative care and pet wellness consultations, which are gaining buy-in amongst owners. 3) With the variety of challenges that the profession is currently facing, collaboration is one of the ways in which we can better support clinic teams. Smarter use of our resources, including telehealth, is an important planning consideration. 4) We also have a wealth of data to analyse. This will give us an essential evidence base for telehealth for us to build on for the future.
What is your experience and perception of telehealth?
The expansion and use of telehealth in both human and veterinary medicine is likely to persist beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. So perhaps the question is no longer should we use telehealth, but how can we ensure equitable pet healthcare systems so that we and our clients are prepared for the future.