Social distancing is continuing for longer than most of us expected. Between the masks covering our faces and the fact that many veterinary practices are continuing curbside service, veterinarians may feel it’s more difficult than ever to connect with clients the way they did before the pandemic. The solution to this trust and relationship-building challenge may require some creativity and adopting of new technologies.
In this 5-part series, we’ll cover a few ways to bond and communicate with clients even if you can’t see them in person. For today’s topic, we’ll explore telemedicine and how it may fit into (and benefit) a busy veterinary practice.
Part 1: Telemedicine
Experts estimate that at least 50% of communication (some put the number as high as 93%) is nonverbal. Facial expressions are a part of that. A simple face-to-face interaction can do a lot to promote trust. However, in a day and age where facemasks and curbside service are the new normal, unmasked face-to-face interactions aren’t possible—at least, not without virtual technology.
Telemedicine is a hotly debated topic in veterinary medicine. There’s disagreement over how and when—and even IF—virtual consults should be used. After all, you can’t touch the animal, listen to their heart and lungs, draw a blood sample, or give vaccines over a video chat—to name just a few limitations. Nevertheless, with some clear guidelines, telemedicine may be a great way to stay in touch with clients, especially during social distancing.
Benefits of Telemedicine Include Meeting Client Expectations, As Well As Appropriately Scheduling and Charging for Phone Calls Rather Than ‘Squeezing Them In’
While it’s a bit cliché to mention, the old example of Blockbuster Video rings true here. In other words, failure to adapt to changing technology and customer expectations can spell doom for a business or industry. Of course, it’s not an exact comparison. There are some aspects of physically seeing and treating a pet that can never be replaced by a virtual visit. But, there are also plenty of aspects of a veterinarian’s daily tasks that don’t require a client to bring their pet into the office.
For example, you probably already talk to clients on the phone (or delegate the call to a team member) many times per day. Common reasons include discussing a pet’s symptoms with clients and helping them decide if their pet needs to come in right away, answering questions about a pet’s medications or recent diagnosis, answering pet food and nutrition questions, and checking in on the progress of things like weight loss plans.Converting these conversations to scheduled telemedicine appointments (rather than ‘squeezing in’ phone calls during a lunch break) is just one example of how telemedicine can fit into a veterinarian’s daily routine.
Establishing a reasonable fee for these calls—and setting aside time for the call as if it were a regular appointment—can be mutually beneficial. The client feels they have the vet’s full attention, and the conversation isn’t rushed. A vet gets compensated for something they previously did for free. And there is some face-to-face connection without masks, since it’s a virtual visit.
Telemedicine Can Be Used Between Veterinarians to Improve Patient Care
Telemedicine is a great way to connect GPs and specialists—which can improve patient care. For example, if a patient’s diabetes isn’t regulating the way you’d like, maybe it’s worth setting up a virtual consult with an internal medicine specialist to decide the next step. Or, for an expert second opinion on diagnostic images, teleradiology consults are an excellent option to confirm a suspected diagnosis and confidently plan for treatment.
Challenges of Veterinary Telemedicine Include Variations in Legality, and Figuring Out the Best Ways to Implement Telemedicine
Veterinary telemedicine has been met with varying degrees of acceptance in different cities and states.Some jurisdictions have welcomed this new technology, while others chose not to make it a legal option for establishing a VCPR (veterinary client patient relationship). So, no matter how a veterinarian personally feels about telemedicine, it’s crucial to check their location’s rules that govern veterinary telemedicine, and see specifically which types of consults, if any, are supported. Many of these rules have been relaxed during social distancing, but this could change. It’s important to always know the most up to date rules.
Assuming veterinary telemedicine is legal in a veterinarian’s jurisdiction, the next decisions involve when and how to use the technology. Every practice is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all way to implement telemedicine. Instead, here are some questions to ask during the planning stage…
- Will telemedicine services be provided by veterinarians at the practice, or outsourced to a reputable company solely for after hours calls? If provided by employees, does that include all veterinarians, as well as veterinary team members for calls that can be delegated?
- When will telemedicine be provided? Is this solely for weekends and after hours, or will time be scheduled during normal work hours?
- Will there be a charge for telemedicine consults? If so, how much—and will the fee vary depending on the nature of the call and how much time it’s expected to take? Will a follow-up in-person consult be discounted?
- What technology will be used, and how will security/privacy be ensured? How will notes be added to the medical record?
- Is this service available for everyone, or just for established clients?
It may seem overwhelming to implement any new technology, especially one that has the potential to change the nature of client communications moving forward. However, as clients grow to expect this new service (especially as it’s implemented more and more in human medicine), it may be valuable to adopt this new technology. Telemedicine can benefit veterinarians in terms of scheduling, income, and consults with specialists. While telemedicine requires research and a thoughtful plan for implementation, the technology is worth exploring as a way to connect with clients, especially during social distancing.
Editor’s Note: An expert second opinion on radiographs is invaluable for new practitioners who are building their radiographic interpretation skills. Experienced practitioners can also benefit from a second set of eyes on tricky cases, to be sure nothing is missed. Affordable, rapid teleradiology consults are available for veterinarians, here.