COVID-19 Pushes Telehealth for Veterinary Care Into the Highlight

By Eric Wicklund

December 01, 2020 – A side effect of the coronavirus pandemic is new applications for telehealth have been highlighted. And veterinary care is high on that list.

Interest in veterinary telemedicine is growing during the ongoing crisis, from pet owners seeking care without having to travel to veterinarians to expand their reach without filling their clinics – and even from health plans and health systems that identify social and societal factors that affect health and wellbeing.

“With concerns about COVID-19 growing, the use of telemedicine has become an important tool in protecting and monitoring the health of veterinarians and veterinary teams,” advises the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) on its website. “The use of telemedicine can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, as veterinarians can only be adequately screened and monitored with the veterinarians who really need to be seen to travel to the clinic with their owners.”

The benefits of telehealth for veterinary care are similar in many ways to human care. Pet owners want access to virtual care so their pet can be seen by a veterinarian without the time and money spent traveling and waiting in a waiting room, especially if the problem is minor and can be video-consulted or even fixed Call. On the flip side, a networked health platform could give veterinarians access to a much larger patient population, enable them to connect with specialists and prescribe medication, and even monitor pets at home after discharge or for chronic care and medication management .

The bigger challenge is getting the payer industry interested in pet health, and this has to do with growing evidence that pet health directly affects the health and wellbeing of pet owners.

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Around 65 percent of Americans have pets, says Mark Cushing, founding partner and CEO of the Animal Policy Group, and academic research has shown that pet ownership has a positive impact on health. In fact, many doctors would be willing to prescribe a pet to address stress, loneliness, or other health issues.

And pet owners “are willing to spend the same dollars on caring for a dog or cat as they, their spouse, or children,” Cushing said during a veterinary telehealth session at this year’s American Telemedicine Association’s annual virtual conference.

Indeed, pet ownership is penetrating the sandbox of social determinants of health, this fast-growing concept favored by care providers and payers who seek to address health care through not just clinical treatment but health and wellness factors as well.

Social determinants of health – the various circumstances in which a person is born and lives – affect about 60 percent of patient health outcomes, well ahead of genetics (30 percent) and even clinical care (10 percent). This means that issues such as income, education, transportation, lifestyle, housing and security have a strong impact on health.

Add to this list that you own and care for a pet, which is directly related to emotional wellbeing. In a survey by Xtelligent Healthcare Media, the parent company of mHealthIntelligence, 11 percent of respondents identified pet ownership as SDOH, 5 percent review their patients for pet ownership, and 9 percent work with organizations within the community to understand the ups and downs Approaching the depths of life with Fido or mittens.

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Prior to 2015, there were next to no networked veterinary care health platforms apart from the weird mHealth app that pet owners use to track their pet’s health and some platforms that are used by large farms and ranches to track herd health. Many states have banned the use of telemedicine for veterinary care and bowed to an industry that has traditionally viewed personal (or animal) care as a significant source of income.

The COVID-19 crisis changed that thinking.

COVID “has had a dramatic impact on veterinary care,” said Cushing. Not only were people adopting pets in greater numbers to cope with the isolation caused by the pandemic, but veterinarians were looking for new ways to ensure care while reducing the number of clinic visits. State governments have also recognized the impact, and many have added veterinary care to the list of emergency telehealth services covered.

“Telemedicine was the tool,” he said.

“In many cases, we don’t think the governors knew there were restrictions on pet telemedicine,” said Deb Leon, CEO of WhiskerDocs, whose pet telemedicine company is up 30 percent in business due to COVID-19 recorded during the ATA session.

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In recognition of this interest, the US Food & Drug Administration issued its own guidelines for the use of telemedicine during the pandemic and enforced certain regulations for the dispensing of drugs and the use of telemedicine to develop what is known as veterinary customer-patient Relationship (VCPR). . However, the FDA shifts to state veterinary associations or veterinary boards to advise telemedicine.

Before COVID-19, only about 3 percent of the health insurance market covered pets (about half of Europe’s health insurances now cover animal health), and few payers were interested in expanding these benefits. That made it difficult for Telehealth to gain a foothold.

“We don’t have a health-care pet funding mechanism like we do for humans, so veterinary medicine is largely a cash business,” noted Cushing. And this business was focused on bringing people to the clinic for care.

But COVID-19 has changed that, and veterinarians are now starting to look into telemedicine.

“They weren’t sure how to do it, they weren’t sure if it was legal (and) they weren’t sure if they could make money out of it (or if) their employees would be comfortable with it at all “Cushing pointed out.” They weren’t sure their pet owners would even want it. … The answer is yes. “

According to Leon, pet owners want access to their pet’s medical records and the ability to get medication without having to travel to a clinic. They want to look after their pets on demand like themselves or their family members.

“This is really about providing pet owners with animal care on their terms,” ​​she said.

And to improve the health of pet owners.

According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), which studies the bond between humans and pets, 85 percent of practitioners surveyed agree that interacting with their pets helps reduce loneliness, and 76 percent say that interactions are between humans and pets can help reduce social isolation.

This can also affect health in the workplace. At Sony, for example, 40 percent of the workforce has children, but 70 percent have pets. According to HABRI, nearly three-quarters of pet owners surveyed would turn down a job offer in favor of a pet-friendly workplace, and employee engagement increases by 30 percent for health plans that offer pet benefits, a 10 to 20 percent increase in employee retention and improved presenterism.

And while the adoption of telemedicine is being driven by younger generations who demand access to care on their terms, this trend is also playing out in the animal world. Millennials and Gen Z owned 62 percent of all pets in America, according to Cushing – and they want animal health as well as their own health care, travel, and commerce.

Even commercial pet companies are entering the room. Mail order company Chewy launched its own telemedicine service “Connect With a Vet” in October.

“We have focused our efforts on developing an easy-to-use and convenient tele-triage product that we expect to have positive effects in the current environment and beyond,” said Sumit Singh, CEO of the company, in a press release . “We always strive to improve the customer experience. Visiting a local veterinarian continues to be a challenge for many pet parents during this time. Similarly, the veterinary community has also been affected by shutdowns or shorter hospital hours. So we thought about why we shouldn’t find a solution that can help the communities as well as our customers and veterinarians during this time of greatest need. “

The Florida-based company piloted its service in Florida and Massachusetts before expanding to more than 35 states. It works with local veterinarians on the connected health platform to strengthen their business during the coronavirus pandemic.