The newly established Veterinary Virtual Care Association will develop best practices, define standards and protocols, and do so much more.
In late April, the veterinary world awakened to a new organization: the Veterinary Virtual Care Association. VVCA hopes to do for veterinary medicine what the American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has done for human health care since its founding in 1993.
Today, telemedicine, telehealth and virtual care are staples of our personal health care, and to promote the services, ATA members include over 400 organizations and thousands of individuals.
ATA’s website frames the opportunity for animal care succinctly: “It’s exciting to see how far telehealth has come. Virtual care has advanced from a curious form of clinical communication to a mainstay in the way providers and consumers interact. From being a side feature of the health care system to an expectation.”
The Genesis of VVCA
Eleven leaders in animal health got together during the COVID-19 pandemic and decided to make the launch of VVCA happen, mainly so veterinary practitioners and teams could connect and share best practices and case experiences, explore how telemedicine works, create standards to ensure high quality, and promote policies that help pet owners more easily connect with veterinary practices.
You might know some of the founding members besides me:
- Cheryl Good, DVM
- Eleanor M. Green, DVM, DACVIM, DABVP
- Jason W. Johnson, DVM, MS, DACT
- Charlotte Lacroix, DVM, JD
- Deb Leon
- Kerri Marshall, DVM, MBA
- Aaron Smiley, DVM
- Bruce L. Truman, MBA
- Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
- Audrey Wystrach, DVM
Now let’s dive into your questions, and the best place to start is VVCA’s set of frequently asked questions.
What is the Veterinary Virtual Care Association?
The Veterinary Virtual Care Association is a global, nonprofit association dedicated to developing best practices for delivering virtual care for animals, defining quality standards and protocols for practicing virtual care, sharing experiences among practice teams, engaging with virtual care providers, and advocating for policies in support of quality virtual care.
Why was the VVCA created?
The profession has witnessed the adoption of telemedicine in human medicine over the past 30 years, and much of the credit goes to the American Telemedicine Association. The ATA started for many of the reasons the VVCA is now needed. Veterinarians, veterinary technicians, telemedicine providers, animal health businesses and organizations need a place to learn, grow, share experiences and develop high-quality standards. VVCA is committed to facilitating just that.
Why doesn’t VVCA include telemedicine in the name?
The Veterinary Virtual Care Association was given this name for a very simple reason: Virtual care is the umbrella for a broad scope of services including telehealth, telemedicine, telemonitoring and teletriage, as well as for the many digital or remote tools used to diagnose and treat animals. As the breadth of technology and tools continues to expand, it is imperative the association be forward thinking and not limit the realm of care.
What are VVCA’s goals?
The goal of VVCA is to make virtual care part of the standard of care in veterinary medicine by advocating best practices, providing educational resources developed by thought leaders, and creating a space for a wide alliance of professionals to congregate and accelerate the adoption of all of the virtual care tools.
Who can be a member?
VVCA is easy to join and open to individuals, businesses and organizations who want to share best practices, network with providers, learn, establish standards and protocols for everyone’s benefit, and promote public policies that make it possible to use virtual care for pet health care.
What is the cost of membership?
Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, there will be a fee associated with joining VVCA. Early adopters can sign up now to join free for the remainder of 2020.
What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the practice of providing clinical care to patients at a distance using telecommunications technology. In other words, it is a method of treating patients using the internet and telephone. This can take the form of real-time video visits, secure email or remotely monitoring a patient’s vital signs.
How typical is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is a significant and rapidly growing component of health care in the United States. Around the world, millions of human patients use telemedicine to monitor their vital signs, remain healthy, and stay out of hospitals and emergency rooms.
Is telemedicine safe?
Guided by technical standards and clinical practice guidelines, telemedicine is a safe and cost-effective way to extend the delivery of pet care. VVCA will be producing a series of standards, guidelines and best practices for veterinary providers to ensure that they are using telemedicine responsibly.
Where can clients get access to virtual care services?
Clients should ask their veterinarians about virtual care services that are available. In many cases, the providers will have existing telemedicine services. Numerous private companies also have basic telehealth services, including 24/7 access to health professionals, online wellness apps and insurance partnerships.
Who benefits from virtual care?
- Clients: Telemedicine gives patients the opportunity to receive care without a trip to the veterinarian’s office. They don’t have to take time away from work or family responsibilities. They don’t waste time traveling, or money on parking or public transportation. They don’t risk exposure to other animals with communicable illnesses. More engaged and personal visits could be a possible outcome.
- Providers: Virtual visits reduce the time of each encounter, allowing providers to see more patients more efficiently. This boosts revenue and minimizes overhead expenses. Telemedicine reduces no-shows and cancellations. It also helps secure client loyalty.
Interest Is Growing
Veterinarians have been debating telemedicine and experimenting with it since 2016, when the Veterinary Innovation Council and other organizations, including the American Association of Veterinary State Boards and the American Veterinary Medical Association, started to engage.
Three challenges have fueled the growth of interest in virtual care:
- If it has worked for 30 years in human health care, why can’t it work in the veterinary space (pets and large animals)?
- How do we get practitioners and veterinary technicians comfortable with telemedicine or, put more bluntly, is virtual care a way to grow practice revenues or just a drain on precious time?
- Too many pet owners do not access veterinary care, so can’t telemedicine be part of the solution provided we make it easier for practices to use these tools?
COVID-19 forced governments to urge human and animal caregivers to use telemedicine to treat patients, and providers responded. We witnessed a surge of interest, learning and experimentation. When we wake up from the depths of COVID-19, when some form of normal has returned, we will not see telemedicine step back to where it was in February 2020. Scores of practices have tried it or expanded usage with positive outcomes.
Telemedicine works with young children who cannot articulate or verbalize their medical condition, and the same is true for pets. The human health experience with digital tools offers a storehouse of knowledge and guidance for veterinarians. An early mission for VVCA is to make this expertise accessible to practitioners so that they might determine what works best for their clinics.
A Revenue Generator
We’ve learned a lot in four years since veterinary telemedicine entered the veterinary scene, most importantly that practices are able to charge for the offerings and keep clients happy through services inside and outside of the clinic. There’s no longer a debate about clients being willing to pay for virtual care, but VVCA will work diligently to educate veterinarians about different options. That’s a high priority for the new association, namely addressing questions as to what types of virtual care fit particular situations, and which ones are easy for veterinary teams and clients to adopt. Veterinarians share best practices all the time, and veterinary virtual care should be no different.
The issue of access to care drove human health care to adopt telemedicine in the first place, starting in states such as Kentucky and Oklahoma, which have rural populations unable to reach facilities in cities and towns. The same challenge faces rural pet owners and urban senior citizens who can’t get to a veterinary clinic.
Then there are pet owners uncomfortable visiting a veterinary clinic for whatever reason. This group often includes millennial pet owners who want services on demand and don’t want to travel or schedule an appointment. While the majority of pet owners bring their pets to clinics, why not deploy virtual care or telemedicine to reach the rest?
A common misunderstanding with telemedicine has been whether it involves a choice between virtual care and in-person visits. Virtual care is a tool alongside in-person care and is a stand-alone tool only when the client cannot or simply will not visit the practice.
VVCA was created to bring focus and standards to this emerging practice resource, but not to replace current veterinary care modalities. This same approach brought human health care powerhouses like Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic into the telemedicine space.
Politics & Policy columnist Mark Cushing is a political strategist, lawyer, founding partner of the Animal Policy Group and the author of “Pet Nation,” a book set for release Sept. 8 by Penguin Random House. He serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.