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October 15, 2020

Succeeding at virtual care

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British veterinary surgeon James Herriot practiced telemedicine when he diagnosed mastitis in a cow and prescribed treatment over the phone.

Dr. Aaron Smiley cited the example of the famous Yorkshire veterinarian during an Aug. 22 presentation for the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020 to demonstrate that telemedicine is nothing new in veterinary medicine.

Illustration: Virtual veterinary care via mobile phone

“When you diagnose and you prescribe over the telephone, you are offering your clients telemedicine, and you’re very good at it,” said Dr. Smiley, who manages two clinics in central Indiana and was an early adopter of telemedicine.

In addition to the phone, veterinarians are using email, live video, and text messages or other messaging services to practice telemedicine. The question is how to monetize that exchange within the veterinarian-client-patient relationship.

“I’m not asking you to do anything new with regards to the medicine,” Dr. Smiley explained. “Telemedicine is not ‘either-or’ but ‘yes-and.’ There’s never going to be a time that any kind of remote care will supplant a physical exam. You’ve got to put your hands on the animal to know what’s going on with certain diseases.”

Other diseases might be more easily diagnosed remotely, however. “Think about arthritis in a cat,” Dr. Smiley said. “I can appreciate arthritis in a cat a whole lot better when the cat’s comfortable at home and the owner’s taking a video of the cat on her time versus coming into the clinic and me trying to assess arthritis.”

Virtual care is going to raise your standard of care, Dr. Smiley said, because instead of taking the owners’ interpretation of what’s going on with their pet, the veterinarian can better assess the animal through pictures, videos, or audio recordings.

How to monetize these services? Some telemedicine platforms have fees built into their services. “Maybe you have a text conversation with a client and say, ‘My receptionist is going to go ahead and give you a call, and she’ll take the money over the phone,’” Dr. Smiley explained.

Clients are willing to pay for virtual care, he added. “That was a tough one for me to get my mind around a couple of years ago when I started doing this, but the reality is, over the three to four years that I’ve offered this, our clients are definitely willing to pay for it.”

“There’s a notion that, as veterinarians, maybe our medical knowledge is not as valuable if we’re not in person, and that’s just not true,” Dr. Smiley said. “We’re very, very good at customer service, and we’re very, very good at telemedicine, and we’re worth it.”