Business , Columns

Implement telehealth to improve your practice

Novices can utilize text messaging, website tools and video platforms to begin elevating the level of client interaction and communication.

Implement telehealth to improve your practice

A year ago, most of my conversations about telehealth began with a puzzled look on the veterinarian’s face and the question, “What is this telehealth everyone talks about?”

Today, those conversations begin with, “I’m just getting too many emails/text messages/phone calls and not recouping any money for my time. Is there some app that can help me?” Or “Let me show you what I’ve been using.”

These conversation are exciting because they signal a telehealth age that has the potential to increase the quality and reach of the health care that veterinarians and their support teams can provide.

Unfortunately, there are no push-button solutions for veterinarians faced with too many emails — let’s call them symptom responders — and practitioners trying out various apps. Let’s call the last group experimenters.

A Vendor Can Help

The symptom responders are often looking to reduce their communication workload by implementing tools that track their conversations and generate revenue from those conversations. We have seen successes with clinics that use text messaging as a means of communicating with clients for appointment reminders and test results, but these tools are sometimes cumbersome because of the one-way communication or are difficult to capture and include in the patient record.

For the experimenters, the way forward can be equally difficult because telehealth tools haven’t been shown to substantially deliver a return on investment. Plenty of individual success stories demonstrate improved efficiencies, better communication and compliance — and an increase in revenue from being able to provide health care to more animals — but there is not a one-size-fits-all approach that fulfills all the experimenter’s desires.

Two general approaches can be taken. The first is to contract with a telehealth company to help expand the clinic’s capacity. This can be as simple as adding a button to the website to turn the clinic into a 24-hour hospital using veterinarians who answer phone calls or text messages. Alternatively, the button can help with scheduling appointments and screening clients to ensure that as much information as possible is collected before the exam, thus saving your team precious face-to-face moments for more meaningful conversations.

Another option would be to create automated reminders, loyalty programs or pet portals that increase compliance and drive more appointments. In all these cases, the companies do most of the heavy lifting to ensure that the solutions meet the clinic needs.

Four-Step Process

Another group of options focuses on increasing the quality of communications and touch points between the veterinary staff and the client. Some of these options include video platforms that allow live interaction between a veterinarian and client, text messaging and email platforms that help to monetize the exchange, and mobile platforms that create greater engagement between the veterinary team and the client.

For symptom responders and experimenters who want to employ low-cost and low-risk solutions on their own, a simple four-step process may help minimize efforts and increase success rates. It’s a process that is adapted from the lean startup methodology.

Here are the four steps:

  1. Start with a small test case. Look for a small change that can be implemented in your practice. This may include finding a client who is interested in using text messaging to get reminders of appointments or post-surgery follow-ups. The key thing is to focus on something that meets a need from a client or from you and your team.
  2. Measure success. Once the client and case have been identified, measure baseline conditions. How much time and energy are currently used to complete the action? How much time does the receptionist or technician spend on the phone? How much time can be saved? Once you identify the baseline, you can determine the specific projected benefit for the clinic.
  3. Learn as much as possible. The process is about more than simply hitting a predetermined goal; it involves learning about the process of implementation itself. This will not only help ensure that the particular tool implementation will be successful, but that future implementation opportunities will be successful.
  4. Expand the case and repeat. If things have gone well, you likely can expand the initial test group to include more cases, more clients and more team members. If things have not gone well, be sure to follow up and try another route. Too often, situations are counted as failures because they didn’t achieve the specific outcomes that were sought. The most successful clinics see learning as the goal and not just achieving a particular goal.

How This Might Play Out

  1. Test case: Use text messaging for post-surgery follow-up. Routine surgeries such as spays often do not include a follow-up, or if they do, a receptionist performs it over the phone. Instead, ask the client to text a photo — programs allow you to do this without giving away your personal phone number — the next day and one week later.
    Offer this communication strategy to clients who appreciate texting. They will welcome the convenience and the desire to continue the relationship, and your team likely will appreciate not being on the phone with someone struggling to describe the situation. If the client hasn’t texted back, make sure you follow up. Offer this to one client and see where things go.
    Some statistics show success rates with phone calls of 30 to 40 percent whereas text message read rates are in the 90 to 95 percent range.
  2. Talk to your team and clients to understand their experience. A three-question survey that asks them to rate their experience, areas of improvement and whether they would recommend it to a friend is sufficient to determine whether you should proceed with the test or move to something different. If you have to change direction, ask what should be learned from this experience and applied to the next scenario.
  3. Expansion means including more clients and cases in the testing phase. If post-surgery follow-ups worked well, then what about gathering information from clients before the exam? A few questions and answers through texting might save substantial time on both the client and veterinary sides if the client doesn’t need to schedule an appointment or if the appointment should be bumped to an emergency situation rather than a routine visit.

A question I often get is, “How do I make money doing this?” One of the easiest ways to incorporate this into your practice is to offer telehealth services as part of your wellness package. Alternatively, using a telehealth provider can take care of many of the financial aspects for you.

To learn more about the companies involved and for answers to basic questions, visit VetFolio’s Telehealth Resource Center at http://bit.ly/2jxyDAs.

Dr. Aaron Massecar is managing a telehealth project for the North American Veterinary Community’s Veterinary Innovation Council.