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A New Era Of Care: Telemedicine in the Veterinary Industry
Telemedicine, also known as telehealth, has helped modernize the delivery of veterinary care in the province of Alberta. It provides greater flexibility for veterinary teams to be able provide remote consultation for pet owners and livestock producers in Alberta.
Telemedicine, as defined by the ABVMA for its members and the public, is the provision of specific veterinary medical advice and veterinary treatment based on remote diagnosis of disease and injury by means of telecommunications technology where, in some specific situations, no physical examination of an animal by the veterinarian takes place. Outside times of crisis, the telemedicine policy is designed to augment the patient visit, in a way that leads to improved animal health and welfare.
Benefits of Telemedicine
Many veterinary clinics and animal emergency hospitals are busier than ever in the province due to staff shortages as well as increased demand for services from the public. The availability of veterinary services in rural settings and the travel distances required can sometimes complicate the ability to provide veterinary care to livestock. Telemedicine is a tool that may help alleviate pressure by enabling veterinarians to provide care remotely on a schedule that works for both the vet and the patient.
Triage in veterinary medicine is arriving at the decision whether the patient needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately or whether it can wait. This service offered remotely is called teletriage.
If the animal needs to be seen by a veterinarian, either by telemedicine or in person, the veterinarian will decide what care is appropriate given the circumstances. For new clients, the veterinarian will most often require an in-person visit.
Veterinary practices have an obligation to provide for continuity of care for patients. Some practices refer clients to other practices for emergency services. Some practices use a teletriage service, which provides information on whether Pet owners or livestock producers need to have a veterinarian attend. Some veterinary practices in Alberta offer a teletriage service and this is something that does not require a previous relationship with a veterinarian, or another way of saying that a Veterinary Client Patient Relationship (VCPR) is not needed for teletriage. However, if it is determined through teletriage that an animal requires veterinary care, pet owners and livestock producers will need to have an established relationship with their veterinarian in order to proceed with a telemedicine appointment that includes prescribing treatment.
Consult with your veterinarian to see if their veterinary clinic or emergency animal hospital offers the teletriage service.
A Relationship with Your Veterinarian is Required for Telemedicine.
The term most often used to describe the relationship between a veterinarian and their patients is Veterinary Client Patient Relationship (VCPR). Veterinary professionals are held to a professional standard, however to you, the animal owner, it means:
The veterinarian has sufficient knowledge of the animal to assess, diagnose and treat. This knowledge is usually established by an in person physical exam, or familiarity with your livestock operation, herd or flock.
The veterinarian has assumed responsibility regarding the health of the animal.
You, the client, have agreed to follow the veterinarians’ recommendations.
The veterinarian is available for follow-up.
The VCPR is based on trust, respect, and open communication. Establishing this relationship before using telemedicine is essential because clients need to feel confident that their veterinarian understands their animal's needs and that they are providing the best possible care. Whether you own a family pet or an operation with hundreds of head of livestock, it’s vital that your veterinarian and veterinary team understands the history of your animal(s) and in the case of livestock-they are familiar with your operation, your breeds of livestock, health history and other important details that your veterinarian will need to know.
A relationship between a veterinarian, a client and animal(s) is required in order to engage in telemedicine. A VCPR cannot be established through telemedicine alone.
In some exceptional circumstances, where all the conditions of a VCPR have not been met, a veterinarian may provide diagnosis and prescribe treatment based on telemedicine, but only for the short term until the patient can be seen in person by a veterinarian.
Telemedicine and the services offered remotely will vary from veterinarian to veterinarian. The public is advised to inquire about telemedicine options and the associated fees with your veterinarian.
Telemedicine For Albertans
When the appropriate criteria is met in terms of having an established VCPR, licensed veterinarians can use telemedicine to treat, diagnose and prescribe medications for your animal, by leveraging technology such as video calls, text messaging and digital photography. Telemedicine can be especially helpful if you are in a remote location. In non-emergency cases, it can save hours of driving time for both you, and your veterinary team, and reduce stress on animals who in some cases do not travel well if required.
An additional term associated with Telemedicine is Telehealth.
Telehealth is the overarching term that encompasses all uses of technology geared to remotely deliver health information or education. Telehealth encompasses a broad variety of technologies and tactics to deliver virtual medical, health and education services. Telehealth is not a specific service, but a collection of tools that allow veterinarians to enhance care and education delivery. Telehealth encompasses both Telemedicine and general advice.
Some Scenarios Where Telemedicine Can Help Albertans
The ABVMA has developed a series of examples that portray some of the ways Telemedicine is currently being used by Alberta veterinarians. We encourage you to familiarize yourself with this list to see if it applies to your pet, or your livestock operation:
Scenario 1: Prescriptions
Your veterinarian may be able to issue prescriptions for your pet or livestock provided you have an established VCPR with your veterinarian, and your veterinarian is familiar with your animals, has information from medical records and is able to collect sufficient information through a telemedicine consultation. Your veterinarian will determine if an in person or hands on examination is necessary
Scenario 2: Frightened Animals
Telemedicine can be especially beneficial to animals who are not easily transported or undergo stress by being outside of their familiar surroundings. It’s always best to consult with your veterinary team before pursuing this option.
Scenario 3: Flock Health
The last few years have seen a shortage of rural veterinarians and often means the size of the geographical area served continues to expand. A large number of commercial poultry farms are scattered across many municipal districts. This gives rise to potential delays in addressing clients’ concerns regarding their flocks, which has motivated many veterinarians to leverage technology in a way that offers a solution.
Instead of traveling tremendous distances to serve clients, some veterinarians have implemented electronic monitoring of their clients’ flocks and established constant information streams, supported by video consultations, remote triage and primary diagnosis, and electronic prescriptions. These changes have dramatically improved service delivery, allowing veterinarians to scale the application of their expertise. It has also resulted in a better quality of care, increased efficiency, improved biosecurity, improved communication and an increased quality of life for veterinarians and their families.
Scenario 4: Reducing Delays and Stress
In some oncology departments, there are frequent delays in scheduling appointments, which can cause anxiety and stress in patients. In an effort to solve this problem, departments have moved to virtual consultations with oncologists and sharing medical records beforehand. Through this relatively simple change, oncology departments are able to increase availability, reduce wait times for new consultations and follow-ups, provide better patient care and reduce the stress and anxiety in patients who formerly endured a prolonged wait.
Scenario 5: A Photo Or Video is Worth 1000 Km
Thanks to veterinary telemedicine, numerous remote farm calls are now triaged by photos and videos stored in the cloud for easy access and insertion into electronic medical records. This has resulted in improved care, stronger client relationships and much better time management.
Always Consult With Your Veterinarian First
The scope and specific applications of telemedicine are determined by veterinary practices; therefore, the public should inquire with their veterinarian to learn more about specific options and use, and how the service fits within a clinic’s fee structure.
The public should undertake caution when accessing telemedicine services by verifying their provider is certified and inspected by the ABVMA and licensed to practice veterinary medicine. Virtualizing this aspect of service delivery does require public vigilance, which is why the ABVMA is cautioning the public about people not licensed to practice in Alberta who are offering telemedicine services from outside the province or country. Although the prevalence of solicitation by these individuals is low, the ABVMA asks the public to be aware and to always contact their veterinarian first. If you are unsure, you can check the ABVMA’s online register to see if someone is licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the province.
Contact your Veterinarian for More Information About Telemedicine
To learn more about the ways in which telemedicine is being used, the ABVMA encourages the public to contact their Veterinarians, to discuss the scope and fee structure in place and how it can benefit you and your animal.