Veterinary practices are under pressure. While veterinarians working clinically across Canada are doing their best to see patients promptly, many routine examinations and non-urgent medical appointments are being delayed. Pets that present with what are considered minor concerns are often not able to be seen for weeks instead of days.
Pet owners have never been closer to their four-legged friends; however, veterinarians are unable to see all of the patients who need us and the pressure is mounting. With high patient loads and fewer DVMs and RVTs available, what can we do? How do we take this pressure and transform it into something positive?
This is where virtual care can help.
The pandemic forced us to re-think our approach to healthcare—both for humans and for pets. While the adoption of virtual care in the veterinary sphere remains far behind what we see in human medicine, the progress made in recent years has been significant.
For companion animal care, this started with the shift to curbside medicine. At the height of the pandemic, this approach allowed us to continue to provide an essential service to our communities while simultaneously ensuring the safety of staff, patients, and clients. A good first step, yes, but one which kept pet owners at a distance, preventing veterinarians from obtaining the additional insight into our patients’ day-to-day habits that only clients can provide. Indeed, curbside medicine was an effective stop-gap measure, but not one that addressed efficiency, nor is it where small animal practice should head directionally.
What followed the first stretch of pandemic lockdowns was the pet adoption boom. Suddenly, we were too busy to see patients in a timely manner, let alone bring in all the new clients knocking on our doors.
By default, we started practicing telemedicine without even realizing it by way of conversations like:
“Fluffy has an eye infection? Okay, well, we have her booked with us next week, so why don’t you come pick up an eye drop to start in the interim, and if it doesn’t clear up, then we’ll see her for an exam and some tests at that time.”
Telemedicine as a disruptor
Although most social distancing restrictions have been lifted, there is still room for a consultation model. This gives us remote access to our patients, but also permits efficiency and the collection of patient history, providing us with the client perspectives we need. Enter telemedicine—or, as it is more commonly known today, virtual care.
According to a 2021 Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) survey of Canadian pet owners, approximately 75 per cent of pet problems that are seen for virtual appointments can be successfully treated solely through virtual care.1
Likewise, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) completed a clinical audit of medical records over a seven-month period, analyzing consults conducted on the virtual veterinary medicine Joii app in the United Kingdom. That study concluded 89 per cent of treatments prescribed via virtual care on the platform fully resolved the presenting issue or resulted in the anticipated response. Further, no harm was done to patients by prescribing remotely.
While virtual care is not a replacement for in-person physical exams, vaccinations, diagnostic tests, or in-hospital treatments, it can be an important complement for veterinarians, providing an alternative for pet owners seeking preventative healthcare and non-urgent medical advice, and reducing the need for trips to and from clinics that may be stressful for both pets and their owners.
The most notable virtual veterinary care platforms in Canada provide clients with access to veterinarians who are licensed to practice in their own province and are available through smartphone apps when and where pet owners need them.
Medical conditions veterinarians are able to address virtually are vast and fall under the auspices of non-urgent care. These include:
- general wellness discussion;
- nutritional and weight management;
- parasite control;
- minor infections;
- mild stomach upset;
- chronic disease management; and
- behavioural challenges.
Additionally, veterinarians working on virtual care platforms can prescribe medications within their provincial regulatory guidelines and provide detailed patient treatment plans, medical records for primary care veterinarians with client consent, and follow-up care to ensure patients are doing well with their treatments.
The benefit to brick-and-mortar clinics
The reality right now in clinical veterinarian practice is we simply do not have the time we once did to consult with our clients in great depth. With the overall shortage of veterinarians across the country, brick-and-mortar clinics are under continual strain to provide services.
By nature, veterinarians are empathetic and keen to improve the lives of pets and their owners by providing the best care possible; however, this tendency to constantly aim for perfection and the desire to fit “just one more” appointment into an already-packed schedule makes it increasingly difficult to achieve a positive work/life balance.
Following the pandemic and the adoption boom, nearly six in 10 Canadian households have at least one pet, totalling more than 16 million dogs and cats from coast to coast. With only 15,000 veterinarians working in Canada—including just 5,300 in Ontario—clinics across the country are seeing an influx of patients which far surpasses what they can reasonably manage.
Virtual care can, therefore, be a time-saving tool for veterinarians, allowing them to better manage their schedules and adhere to an improved work/life balance. Instead of adding clients’ names to a growing waitlist for in-person appointments, we can, instead, refer them to a virtual care solution. Offering non-emergent cases the care they need through a virtual platform can act as a sort of triage, allowing brick-and-mortar clinics to focus in-person consultations on more urgent care, increasing average client transaction rates, and reducing the stress that accompanies the pressure of waiting lists, impatient clients, and delayed preventive care. The reduced workload can provide clinics with much-needed flexibility to better manage consultation time, ultimately providing veterinarians more balance between work and home life.
An improved client and patient experience
Two of the main criticisms of virtual care are concerns that it might deter pet owners from getting their dog or cats checked in-person, and that it could hamper the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). These concerns are simply unfounded with today’s virtual care offerings.
Indeed, virtual support for non-emergent situations offers a convenient way for clients to obtain care while avoiding long wait times and the stressors sometimes associated with in-person care. This can actually build client loyalty and treatment adherence: Pet owners know they can reach someone through their preferred platform quickly and easily, and are reassured their regular family veterinarian is available for in-person consultation when needed. To ensure in-person exams also still take place and that brick-and-mortar VCPRs are maintained, consultation notes can be accessed virtually, and medical records can be shared to ensure continuity of care.
Instead of looking at virtual care platforms as competitors to in-person clinics, we, as a profession, should look to embrace these options as a complement to the work we do in-clinic, and a relief valve for a field under pressure like never before.
Koharik “Dr. Ko” Arman, DVM, is lead veterinarian for Telus Health. A graduate of the Atlantic Veterinary College at the University of Prince Edward Island, she previously spent 13 years working as an associate veterinarian at the VCA Canada Cats Only Animal Hospital. She served as a member of the board of directors of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) Society of British Columbia Veterinarians from 2013 to 2019 and rejoined the board in November 2022 for a new term.