In 2018, I moved nearly 3,000 miles from a veterinary hospital I loved. Moving was absolutely the right choice for my family, but it resulted in a hard pivot for my career. After a few months of relief work, I decided to do something crazy: I reached out to my old hospital and suggested I become their first remote veterinarian. Luckily, our hospital administrator had been dreaming about establishing a new telemedicine program. The stars aligned, and as a result, I’ve been doing dedicated telemedicine since April 2019. In that time, our telemedicine program has grown from 10 remote consults per month to more than 100, and we’ve received excellent client feedback. Here’s what I’ve learned.
#1: You're already doing telemedicine
Every phone call, text, and email is telehealth. When you helped that old friend who asked for advice about their new puppy’s diarrhea, you offered “teleadvice.” The client who just saw you last week for their pup’s kennel cough, and called today to let you know that now the littermate is coughing, too? That was telemedicine! It is already an integral part of your relationship with patients and clients—it takes hours of your time and expertise. It’s time to streamline and monetize that process.
#2: Clients want telemedicine
Everyone is suspicious of change, and new policies and software can be daunting. Empower yourself and your teammates to adapt to new technologies and business strategies ahead of the curve. Months before COVID-19, clients who were ill, unable to drive, out of town, or had very anxious pets were grateful for our remote services.
#3: Telemedicine is an added-value service
Even in the midst of a public health crisis, remote telehealth is a support service. Physical exams are still the pillar of veterinary medicine. Meet with your veterinary team to decide what cases you feel comfortable seeing remotely, and what cases must come into the hospital. This is a little different for every team, but generally problems such as acute limping and diarrhea can be safely seen with veterinary telemedicine, while the male cat with urinary issues or the hit-by-car still needs an in-person physical exam.
#4: Video adds value
Consider using a third-party software (or create your own flow with free video chat services) that allows you to perform a video exam. While telemedicine does work with phone calls, text, and email, video adds incredible value. I feel more confident offering treatment protocols for pets I can see and evaluate on video. Owners love being involved, and can usually be instructed to perform a basic exam. It also allows me to evaluate how truly sick the patient seems.
#5: Get the whole hospital on board
Be sure to keep every team member in the loop. In order to break free of previous habits (such as instructing the owner to leave a long voicemail to be returned by phone), be sure the entire hospital is familiar with your new telemedicine plan. CSRs and veterinary nurses are already great at guiding clients toward appointments vs. walk-in urgent care—telemedicine appointments are one more option that should be offered from the first time your client reaches out.
#6: Communication is important
Telemedicine is a whole new world, and clients should be aware that you are learning with them. Communicate your expectations thoroughly—“I expect Fluffy to recover in a few days at home with this treatment plan. If that isn’t happening, or if you are noticing new clinical signs, Fluffy should be brought into the hospital for a physical exam.” My clients have been great at understanding both the conveniences and the limitations of telehealth services. Don’t be afraid to explain: “Over video exam I can’t listen to Fluffy’s heart and lungs—here are the risks associated with that.” Document your client education.
#7: Telemedicine isn't going away
I didn’t see COVID-19 coming when I started my telemedicine journey. I wish the veterinary world’s wakeup call to the advantages of telemedicine could have gone differently. However, this crisis will teach us valuable new skills, and we should continue to use them even after the public health situation improves. Our clients will be expecting it, and our patients deserve it.