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Business, Columns, COVID-19

What are you waiting for?

Demand for virtual care is soaring. The ever-expanding field of teleconsulting and telemedicine has options galore for any size practice. You just need to investigate and choose a partner.

What are you waiting for?
Before you sign on with a telemedicine platform provider, ask another clinic about its experience.

Is your veterinary practice one of the estimated 32% that use some form of virtual care? If you joined the crowd due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone — telehealth platform use skyrocketed once social distancing arrived and clinics scrambled to take care of pets while keeping their owners six feet away. But maybe, like the other 68%, you’re not quite sure whether telehealth is right for you. Or maybe you had a platform that didn’t work as you had hoped.

Before COVID, the veterinary response to the idea of telehealth was, to put it mildly, chilly. Discussions of how telemedicine might fit into a veterinarian’s daily routine were practically nonexistent outside of a handful of clinics braving uncharted waters. During COVID, practitioners didn’t descend en masse to telemedicine service websites because they suddenly saw the light; they did it because they thought they had to. In the first days after COVID shutdowns began, telemedicine platform providers were bombarded with requests from frantic practice owners.

Skipping the customary slow dissection that most veterinarians perform before they dive into new technology, and overwhelmed with the sudden tidal wave of choices, many clinics chose a platform without fully considering how they intended to use it. With little guidance as to the choices and nuances, many decision-makers had no idea which questions to ask when they were evaluating options.

Several months in, clinics are beginning to see the results. What components do they use the most, what worked out well and what could they do without? Several patterns have emerged.

So, with that in mind, I set out to update the ever-expanding list of telehealth services. The directory can be downloaded below. I also want to provide guidance for selecting the best platform for your needs.

Sort Through the Noise

It’s easy to fall into the analysis paralysis category when you see a list of three dozen service providers and platform solutions in front of you, especially when you’re overwhelmed with everything going on at your busy clinic. The best way to get started is to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

Ask yourself these questions to get a sense of where you are now and where you’d like to be in six months.

  • Am I looking to connect with clients during COVID-mandated curbside procedures or am I looking for a long-term solution?
  • Do I already use two-way messaging? Is it something I’d like to add?
  • Do I have a practice management software system I’m happy with, or am I willing to try a new service?
  • How is Wi-Fi connectivity in my area?
  • Do most of my clients use mobile devices, or do I need a service that also runs on a desktop?
  • Would I like an outside service to provide after-hours support or specialist consults, or am I just looking for a platform to connect with clients?

The list has three categories:

  • Teleadvice services: These outside veterinarians and technicians provide triage and advice directly to pet owners. A veterinarian-client-patient relationship is not required.
  • Teleconsult services: These outside specialists do consulting work for you. Since you maintain the VCPR and client interaction, the specialist can be anywhere in the world.
  • Telemedicine platforms: These connect you directly to your clients. All human power is supplied by your team members.

Evaluate the Features

Assuming you want a telemedicine platform, the next question to ask is, which features are important? Rank them to help you figure out which providers best fit the bill. Do you want an all-in-one provider and all the bells and whistles, or are you looking for something more streamlined that serves one or two key needs?

Among the five key features to consider are:

1. Live video: While many veterinarians assume live video is the most important element of a telemedicine platform, many clients prefer messaging or live chat rather than a face-to-face discussion. One exception is when you want to use live video to connect a pet owner into the exam room during a curbside appointment. In those cases, live video might be the preferred means of communication. Live video is prone to dropped signals due to poor connectivity, which can be a frustrating user experience.

2. Two-way messaging: Messaging can take place in real time (live chat) or in a saved format like text messaging or email (asynchronous communication). Both are well-received by clients and staff members and can ease the burden on your customer service representatives and phone lines. Asynchronous communication allows staff to quickly answer questions at convenient moments rather than having to schedule calls or live video visits. Two-way messaging is an excellent way for trained staff to triage questions such as “Do I need to come in today?” Some platforms allow clients to send photos and videos ahead of a visit. Many clinicians find this useful when patients experience intermittent symptoms, such as reverse sneezing, that the client has difficulty explaining.

3. PMS integration: A few providers use cloud-based practice management software with an integrated live video option. If you don’t need new practice management software, you can cross off those providers from the get-go. If you want a platform that integrates directly into your PMS, look for one compatible with your needs. Services that don’t offer PMS integration usually provide a PDF file that can be uploaded directly into the patient record. While this is an extra step, some clinics find it easier and less prone to hiccups than relying on a platform that might need occasional software updates. I advise asking another clinic about its experience with the platform.

4. Pricing: The list doesn’t show prices because a lot of the cost depends on the options you choose. Rather than me complicating matters by listing all the variables, keep in mind that pricing tends to fall into two broad categories:

  • Recurring: Clinics are charged a fee to use the platform over a certain period.
  • Fee for service: Each transaction incurs a charge.

Pricing structures can include subcategories like a charge for each doctor or client user. When you talk to a platform provider, ask about setup fees and free trials.

5. Payments: Do you want the platform to collect the client’s payment on your behalf or are you content with managing it yourself? Is the payment system secure? Can you set and vary your fees? How much of the client charge is retained as a service fee?

Start Reaching Out

Once you identify the most desired features, narrow your choices to three or four and start making queries. You’re looking for providers that respond quickly, are happy to offer references and demonstrations, and have a good track record.

  • These are the most common questions to ask:
  • How many clinics use your platform? Can you provide contact information for a few of them?
  • How do you store information and protect client data?
  • Where are records stored and for how long?
  • How long have you been in business?
  • Can I schedule a demonstration?
  • Do you offer a free trial?
  • What kind of customer onboarding do you offer? What about technical support after onboarding?
  • Do you provide marketing support or materials?
  • Do you require a contract, or can I go month to month?
  • Can I set my own pricing? How are the fees collected?
  • Can I set my own schedule? Do you offer support for multiple staff members to create their own schedules and profiles?
  • Do you have customer utilization data? How many telemedicine appointments are clients booking daily?

Choosing a telemedicine platform requires due diligence. It’s work, of course, but the time spent will pay dividends when you wind up with the platform that best serves your needs. After all, virtual care is here to stay.

Innovation Station guest columnist Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a San Diego veterinarian, author and the founder of the Facebook group Veterinary Telemedicine Community. She is a certified veterinary journalist.


Download the Provider Directory