Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer living in Denver, Colorado, and the owner of Rumpus Writing and Editing. She has been a veterinary writer and editor since 2011, when she was hired as a copywriter for the American Animal Hospital Association. Learn more at rumpuswriting.com
It was 2015 and a woman driving a Toyota Corolla pulled into the parking lot of Monticello Animal Hospital in Shawnee, Kansas. Practice owner Crista Wallis, DVM, watched as the woman got out of the driver’s seat, pulled three wooden planks out of the trunk, opened the rear passenger door, erected a ramp to the backseat and coaxed a 200-pound potbellied pig out of the car.
“The pig had a bad leg, and trying to get that pig back into the car was like a circus show,” recalled Dr. Wallis. “That was the day I said, ‘Enough!’ I could do that case remotely without having her transport a 200-pound pig.”
Telemedicine, an idea not yet embraced by most in the veterinary industry at that point, was gaining in popularity in human medicine, so what’s where Dr. Wallis began her research. She decided to start small by charging for email and phone consultations. Soon, she noticed veterinary-specific telemedicine companies popping up and more people talking about the technology’s place in the profession.
Since the day Dr. Wallis helped get the pig back into the car, she knew telemedicine would play an integral role in her one-doctor practice. She wanted to take the service to the next level now that she was charging for email and phone consultations, but she needed help. That’s when her use of telemedicine apps began, and she’s never looked back.
Today, Dr. Wallis’ app helps her to provide better client service and convenience, creates a more efficient patient schedule, and supports a better work-life balance.
After trying a lot of telemedicine apps, Dr. Wallis discovered what she really needs and wants from one. Here’s what she and another veterinarian have learned.
- Easy transactions: A favorite feature of the telemedicine app that Dr. Wallis uses is payment capture. Clients enter their credit card information and are charged at the end of the conversation. “It’s nice because I don’t have to spend time collecting that information or putting it into my practice management system,” she said.
- Multiple communication options: Another must-have for Dr. Wallis is flexibility within the app. She prefers an app that gives clients and practitioners the ability to communicate in different ways, including asynchronous video, live video, and two-way chat or text messaging.
- Easily customizable: “I like apps that allow you to quickly customize your telemedicine service hours, your fee schedule and what the expected response time will be,” said Dr. Wallis. “If I’m in surgery, I want the ability to change my response time so that clients know I won’t be able to respond for up to two hours.” Saye Clement, DVM, co-owner of Carling Animal Hospital in Ottawa, Ontario, agreed. “I can go online and easily modify an appointment schedule,” she said. “It’s so simple.”
- Hospital branding: What’s better than a great app that clients can use to communicate with your team? The answer: a great app that’s also branded to your hospital. “I love that my clients can search for my hospital name in the App Store and find my app,” Dr. Wallis said. “It includes my hospital logo, colors and brand. It helps my hospital to stand out.”
- Great customer service: “If the app comes with awesome customer service, that’s a big plus for me,” Dr. Wallis said. “I need someone who’s going to be available to help me out when I get started, anytime I have questions, or when I need support.”
- PIMS integration: A telemedicine app that integrates with practice information management software can make your workflow more efficient, saving you time and reducing the likelihood of human error.
- Recordkeeping: Because Dr. Clement’s app utilizes Zoom, calls are recorded. “We have a record — a cloud-based record — of all the video calls,” she said. “And we also have a transcription should you need to go through and see what you said to the client.
- Ease of use: “Our app provided a seamless way for us to get started without having to do all the setup ourselves,” Dr. Clement said. “It’s easier to not have one more thing to think about if you’re not necessarily tech savvy.”
Ready to Start?
Here are some tips from telemedicine app users.
- If you haven’t implemented telemedicine or tried using a telemedicine app, talk to those who have.
- Start small, especially if you’re a small practice or you’re afraid of change. Some ideas from Dr. Wallis include start with chatting or texting only; begin with a handful of situations, such as post-op surgery consults; and use the app with 20 of your best clients before rolling it out to all clients.
- Involve your team. Dr. Wallis’ staff triages cases through her app’s two-way chat feature. Make one team member initially responsible for replying to chats and texts, and then expand the duty to additional team members.
- Offer multiple ways to communicate. When Dr. Wallis started using an app, she assumed most clients would want to communicate via live video, but she found that most liked chatting or texting, and she preferred the same. “I can solve almost any problem through a chat feed with pictures and videos, and it’s less cumbersome than trying to get everything together for a video consult,” she said.
- Use the app to educate clients. Dr. Wallis makes short videos about common services and conditions. After appointments, she sends the videos to clients through her app’s chat feed.
- Select an app that allows clients to request food or prescription refills. “Everything I recommend through the app also goes through the hospital,” Dr. Wallis said. “When I recommend special food, medications or preventive products, the clients buy them through my hospital, which increases revenue.”
An App-Less World
Can telemedicine be done well without an app? Pam Nichols, DVM, the owner of Animal Care Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah, has been practicing telemedicine since 2015 but has never used an app.
“In the beginning, telemedicine was really inefficient,” Dr. Nichols said. “I agreed to do consults over the phone for various conditions, and my receptionist would call and get payment.”
But in 2016, Dr. Nichols’ website provider added a link: “Click here to complete an online telemedicine request.” The click-through form included communication preferences (text, FaceTime, phone call) as well as fields for the owner’s name, pet’s name, email address, history, current medical issue and more. Owners could upload video and photos, and they could choose a payment amount based on the preferred response time ($49 within 24 hours or $79 within six hours). Once the form was submitted, clients were directed to PayPal to complete the transaction and the veterinarian would contact them within the desired timeframe.
Dr. Nichols still uses the form for telemedicine consults. When asked if she ever considered switching to a formal telemedicine app, she answered, “No. Why would I? Mine’s free.”
Nothing is free, and with the sudden demand for telemedicine and conferencing technology, suppliers have multiplied in the veterinary space. Generally speaking, the less expensive the platform, the deeper you’ll need to dig to uncover the WIIFM (what’s in it for me).
Here are a few strategies commonly used by app developers:
- Free at first: A company offers a free product for a limited time, loses money on the front end and gains a paying customer in the long term.
- Limited-time offer: These deals generally start with a lower price point or a waived enrollment fee. The trade-off is typically a contract ensuring the practice won’t leave when the next-best offer comes along. Veterinarians must be sure to understand any early-cancellation penalties.
- Free until a certain threshold: Part of the platform is free, but bells and whistles are reserved for the paid version.
- Forever free: This should be a red flag. Every company needs to make money if it wants to survive. For technology companies, this trade-off often comes in the form of pet owner data. The companies use your clients’ information to market directly to them.
Perform Due Diligence
Before committing to a telemedicine app, do your research. Remember to:
- Understand the vendor’s revenue model. If it isn’t obvious, ask questions until you know how the vendor makes money.
- Calculate the risks and benefits.
- When in doubt, ask to speak to the company CEO so that you understand the business better and its approach to data security.
Dr. Wallis thinks her telemedicine app is well worth the price since it helps her to improve compliance, increase revenue and enjoy a better work-life balance.
“Keep an open mind, because telemedicine is here to stay,” Dr. Wallis said. “You’re going to have to figure out how to communicate this way, and an app may be the way to help you do just that.”
Go to bit.ly/Virtual-Care to download a who’s who guide to 36 companies offering apps or services in the telemedicine, teleadvice and teleconsult space. The roster appeared in the August/September 2020 issue of Today’s Veterinary Business.