Dr. Camille DeClementi is vice president of ASPCA Animal Hospital in New York City. She serves on the Veterinary Innovation Council board and is a past co-owner of Animal Emergency Clinic in Champaign, Illinois.Read Articles Written by Camille DeClementi
I’d wager that most veterinarians feel both excitement and trepidation when thinking about how telemedicine will change the way they practice veterinary medicine. The pandemic made telemedicine a necessity for many of them, but now that COVID-19 is moving toward being endemic, should we keep practicing telemedicine as we did at its height? I think so, and here’s why: At its core, expanding access to telemedicine is an animal welfare issue. Telemedicine enhances access to veterinary care, reduces patient fear and stress, and supports animal sheltering.
The human medicine community recognizes that telemedicine technologies can improve access to health care. In all 50 states, for example, physicians may use telemedicine to establish doctor-patient relationships and can employ the technologies to diagnose and treat current and new patients, including infants and nonverbal adults.
It’s time for veterinary medicine to follow suit. Licensed veterinarians should be legally and professionally empowered to determine when to use telemedicine. Unfortunately, at least 10 states forbid veterinarians from using telemedicine technologies with new patients, often going so far as to classify such activities as “unprofessional conduct,” for which veterinarians can be disciplined.
Many pets don’t see a veterinarian regularly, often because their owners confront significant barriers, including the cost of care. The obstacles can result in pet owners forgoing or postponing treatment or relinquishing the animal. Furthermore:
- In 2020, the chief economist for the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated that over 50 million pets, about one-third, do not see a veterinarian at least once a year.
- A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association indicated that the cost of care was cited frequently as an obstacle to veterinary care.
- A national study showed that 40% of low-income owners who rehomed their pets reported that access to affordable veterinary care would have helped them keep the animal.
Telemedicine addresses financial barriers by providing a cost-effective option for many pet owners. It also helps them avoid additional travel expenses and perhaps unnecessary time off work.
While finances are a frequently cited obstacle to veterinary care, many people live in areas with few or no veterinary services, or they might face logistical hurdles. Especially when those factors are combined, families might forgo basic preventive care, leading to more urgent medical conditions.
Telemedicine addresses the geographic and logistical problems encountered by many pet owners, including seniors, individuals with disabilities, those lacking transportation, and those who live in underserved urban or remote areas. Telemedicine also can address the challenges of transporting large or aggressive animals.
The current shortage of veterinarians and other veterinary professionals might worsen access problems. For example, a September 2020 study found that 75 million U.S. pets could be without veterinary care by 2030 if we do not update our approach to providing our services.
The expanded use of telemedicine technologies helps to:
- Bridge gaps in care caused by workforce shortages.
- Increase access to the veterinary health care system.
- Keep pets and people together.
Research has documented that clinical examinations are stressful for most dogs and cats. One study demonstrated that almost 78% of dogs studied showed fearful behavior during a standardized clinical exam, with 13% so frightened that they had to be dragged or carried into the exam room. In addition, dogs and cats are sometimes separated from their owners for medical exams, which often happened during the pandemic. In many cases, the separation results in even greater stress.
Besides decreasing fear and stress in healthy patients, the use of telemedicine for palliative and end-of-life care has the potential to reduce unnecessary clinic visits, minimize stress, and lessen the suffering of senior or terminally ill patients.
Lastly, animal shelters with staff veterinarians might face situations where doctors who cannot be on the premises could provide care through telemedicine. For animal shelters without staff veterinarians, third-party doctors might be able to provide valuable, lifesaving services through telemedicine.
I believe veterinary care should be accessible to all pets regardless of their owners’ socioeconomic status, physical limitations or location. Telemedicine addresses multiple animal welfare concerns by:
- Expanding access to care so that more pets can remain with their caring owners.
- Reducing patient fear and stress.
- Supporting animal sheltering.
Let’s work to make sure veterinarians can use this powerful tool.
Check out the Veterinary Virtual Care Association’s interactive, state-by-state telemedicine regulatory map at bit.ly/3jghPLl.