An Introduction to Virtual Vet Appointments (Veterinary Telemedicine)

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Telemedicine has become increasingly popular for people. They allow us to connect to doctors and on-call nurses remotely via video conferencing, primary medical clinics, insurance companies, and private companies. These services can address basic health concerns and can help to triage injury or illness, sometimes call-in prescriptions, and let you know if you need to be seen immediately at an urgent care or emergency room. Telemedicine for pets takes much of the same approach by allowing pet owners to connect with veterinary professionals remotely, but can it replace a visit to the veterinarian?

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The growth of veterinary telemedicine during 2020 and 2021

Telemedicine has grown in popularity for pets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Veterinary telemedicine options are especially compelling for pet parents because of how challenging it has been and continues to be to get access to veterinary appointments during the pandemic.

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Many veterinary clinics have reduced hours leaving people waiting sometimes weeks to even get a regular vaccine appointment for their pet. This has led to what would normally not be a non-emergency condition like ear infections needing to be treated in emergency clinics. Veterinary ER clinics across the country have also had to limit their capacity, which combined with the increased demand, has at times resulted in pets and pet owners being turned away or waiting many hours to be seen. As a result, many pet owners are understandably looking for alternatives to get more immediate access to veterinary care. A growing number of pet care companies have begun offering some amount of telemedical support, and an increasing number of veterinarians are adding telemedical appointments to the services their clinics can provide.

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Virtual appointments with your vet

The biggest benefit of veterinary telemedicine is that local veterinarians can continue their relationships with their existing patients. With telemedical appointments, veterinarians can see pet owners face to face and monitor pet health and care via video appointments. This has been very helpful during the pandemic where curbside drop-off appointments have become the norm. Virtual appointments can give veterinarians the opportunity to see presenting health concerns in real-time while the pet is at home, where they are also generally more relaxed and comfortable than in a veterinary clinic setting.

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For pets who have existing relationships with their primary veterinarians, or with veterinary specialists, telemedicine appointments can be used to assess how recovery and treatment are going for ongoing conditions. Since the pet is already a patient at the clinic and the veterinarian is familiar with their overall health, depending on the pet's condition, some prescriptions can be renewed or called in without the pet needing to come back into the office.

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In-network support

Some independent veterinary telemedicine providers have begun working "in-network" with veterinary clinics across the country. These can help you to get an appointment (if needed) with your veterinarian, transfer notes from your call directly to your veterinarian, and provide round-the-clock support from veterinary experts. Some veterinary telemedicine providers maintain relationships with local emergency veterinary clinics. If it's recommended for you to bring your pet in for immediate treatment, they can call local veterinary hospitals and find who has the shortest wait time. They can also let the attending veterinarian/veterinary staff know what issues your pet is presenting and why you will be coming in for treatment. This can potentially speed up your pet being seen and treated at the clinic.

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Tele-triage

Veterinary telemedicine can help pet owners better understand their pets and can also function as a screening tool. One of the primary selling points of any kind of veterinary telemedicine subscription service is the round-the-clock access to a veterinarian or veterinary technician via phone, video, or sometimes even text to get your questions answered. With tele-triage, a veterinarian will be able to help pet owners determine if they need to bring their pet immediately to their primary practice vet, or an emergency hospital.

Tele-triage veterinary services are growing in popularity, with a number of new pets being adopted over the last two years. Sometimes for a new pet owner, it can be hard to know if their pet's sudden illness or strange behavior is an emergency, or if it's not something to worry about. Tele-triage services are especially useful to help pet owners decide if they need to try to get their pet to the vet on nights and weekends when their primary practice clinic isn't open. The on-call support can help owners determine if the situation can wait until their regular vet opens, and if the behavior/symptoms they are seeing is not a crisis at all, or if they need to be immediately seen.

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Limits of veterinary telemedicine

Veterinary telemedicine sounds like a dream come true if you have a pet who is nervous about going to the vet, or you find yourself with a sick pet in the middle of the night. However, veterinary telemedicine has significant limits. At this time, The American Veterinary Medical Association sees telemedicine as a way to augment physical veterinary practices and notes that most states are in accordance with the association's principles. The diagnosis of conditions and prescription of any medication can only be done by veterinarians who have recently seen and physically evaluated the pet. The association specifies, "with the exception of emergency tele-triage, including poison control services, AVMA opposes remote consulting, including telemedicine." This means that at least for now, it's unlikely your pet will be able to be virtually seen, diagnosed, and have prescriptions called in unless the telemedical appointment is provided by your pet's regular veterinarian.

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