Veterinary telemedicine has gained a lot of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pandemic continues to change the way we go about our daily lives, certain areas of Canada and the United States remain under strict emergency restrictions. While these restrictions are easing in some areas, it’s possible that we’ll see a second wave of disease with accompanying restrictions.
Many veterinary clinics have remined open because veterinary services are considered essential—but things certainly aren’t business as usual. Some clinics are providing only urgent or emergency care, while others are open but are operating in a different way. This may include curbside care to reduce contact between pet owners and members of your veterinary healthcare team and/or the introduction of telehealth.
Telehealth is the overarching term used to describe all telecommunication-based health services. Telehealth may include telephone, text messaging, internet chat, or videoconferencing. Telemedicine is just one component of telehealth.
Telemedicine is defined as the act of practicing medicine at a distance. When a veterinarian diagnoses a condition, recommends a treatment, or provides a prescription without the patient visiting the veterinary clinic, the veterinarian is practicing telemedicine. Telemedicine typically can only be performed if there’s an existing Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR) – meaning that telemedicine services can only be offered to patients who had previously been seen in person by the veterinarian for a physical exam. Given the pandemic, some federal and local governments have relaxed this requirement.
As we cope with the “new norm”, telehealth—and telemedicine—is proving useful in reducing human-to-human interaction (thereby potentially reducing the spread of COVID-19), while still providing the care our pets need. Seniors, people with compromised immune systems, and those who are just nervous about interacting with others during the pandemic may feel more comfortable using telehealth options rather than heading out to their veterinary clinic for an in-person visit.
While not all conditions can be addressed via telemedicine, many can be. It may also be used by veterinarians to provide prescription refills—especially during heartworm and flea and tick season! Follow-up care to monitor an existing condition or post-surgical monitoring may also be done through telemedicine.
During a telemedicine “visit” your veterinarian gathers information through a medical history (the signs your pet is experiencing, how your pet is behaving, etc.) and a “virtual” physical examination. The physical examination is more limited in telemedicine of course! But photographs and videos (live or pre-recorded) may be part of the examination. Or your veterinarian may ask you to take your pet’s temperature, check his/her heart rate or check the color of his/her gums. While it’s not possible to complete a full examination during a telemedicine appointment, your veterinarian may be able to obtain enough information to arrive a presumptive diagnosis and begin a treatment plan.
If your veterinarian cannot diagnose and treat your pet via telemedicine (for example, if your veterinarian cannot make a complete and accurate diagnosis and further diagnostic testing is required), your veterinarian may provide preliminary advice via telemedicine in order to provide your pet with relief until your pet can be seen in person.
The convenience and accessibility of telehealth options are helping pet owners through this pandemic. While telehealth can’t completely replace an in-person examination—and certainly can’t replace care in a pet emergency—it offers peace of mind during a difficult time. Stay safe and snuggle your pet.