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It became one of the ways many vet clinics adapted to stay in business during the pandemic, but is there a long-term future for curbside consultations? By John Burfitt
When it came to remaining open throughout the pandemic, the word ‘pivot’ quickly took new precedence across all areas of the business landscapes as new ways of functioning had to be found to adapt the service delivery model and yet stay within various health guidelines.
In the veterinary profession, one of the main pivot principles became curbside consultations, which saw animals collected from their owner’s car by veterinary staff, taken inside the practice alone for a consultation, with much of the interaction about information between the vet and the owner done by phone or Zoom. After the consultation was complete, the animal would be returned to the owner’s car and the session wound up by usually another phone call between the vet and the owner.
In many cases, actual consultations have been conducted beside the owner’s car. All of this was in order to maintain physical distancing where possible in the workplace.
According to a January poll on the US online platform the Veterinary Information Network, curbside consultations became the most widely adopted of all COVID-19 prevention measures. Another poll on the platform asked if this was a better way of working and attracted more positive responses than negative. Some even claimed they would consider adopting aspects of it in the long-term.
This way of operating has not, however, became universally popular. Some on the same platform were critical, claiming this was ‘an evil born of pandemic necessity’, while others described it as inefficient and impersonal, and said it put too much strain on clients. Also many clients ended up complaining about the arrangement.
Dr Geoff Golovsky of Vet HQ in Sydney’s Double Bay does not mince word when he describes this way of working.
“I don’t call it curbside consulting; I call it gutter consulting as that’s really what it is,” Dr Golovsky says. “Everything we do is done professionally to offer an amazing service, and you can’t do anything like that when you’re sitting in the gutter of a carpark listening to a dog’s heartbeat, with cars going past and the loading dock of a supermarket only metres away.
“I understand all the reasons we had to do this, and we adjusted in every way possible, including hiring extra parking spaces and using a demountable shed as an outside reception, but this has been the pits as it is just incredibly hard for everyone.”
The one word Dr Candice Kriegler of Melbourne’s Forest Hill Veterinary Hospital constantly uses when discussing the lessons of adapting to working this way is ‘flexibility’.
“It was like being given a new set of rules to work with, and so it became a matter of working out how to make it work for everyone involved,” she says. “That became a matter of having to factor in the ways this impacted the vets, nurses, admin staff, animals and the clients, and doing our best to lessen that impact wherever we could.”
One of the major issues proved to be often needing a nurse to hold the animal during the consultation—a role usually assumed by the owner. “That sometimes proved to be an issue in terms of nurse availability and understanding what I can and can’t do on my own,” she explains. “That could be a major stumbling block for a new grad vet who may not yet be great at making decisions like that.”
As well as the challenges, Dr Kriegler found there were advantages that should be noted for the future.
“In the majority of cases, the animals proved far less anxious and more cooperative without their owner in the consulting room,” she says. “What was interesting was seeing the way an animal is often more cooperative when the owner is not around.”
It’s a similar observation made by regional Victorian vet Dr Kate Clarke, of the Australian Veterinary Association’s Veterinary Business Group.
“There’s been both improved animal behaviour away from nervous owners, as well as increased challenges for others,” she says. Along with this process often taking more time than usual, Dr Clarke notes some improvements within workplaces.
“No public in the building can result in a more predictable and tight-knit team environment,” she says. “Some team members have reported they’re more able to be themselves and institute better self-care and support of others. Drop-off services might also allow for more flexibility to timetabling to work efficiently within human resource constraints. It’s also been a bonus for those who just like to focus on the pets.”
With some pandemic restrictions finally lifting in some states, the coming months will prove a telling time for the future of curbside consultations. While one participant in the US VIN study suggested the success of curbside consultations has prompted the profession to examine it processes into the future, practitioners like Dr Golovsky says his clinic will dump this method at the earliest possible opportunity.
“Our clients have been wonderful about it, and our team has adapted as best we can, but the reality is this is a real pain and not a way anyone wants to work,” he says. “We have also missed so much in terms of building client relationships as that interaction has had to be so restricted.
“Possibly the lesson has been that in a dire time, everyone adapted so efficiently and our animal patients continued to be cared for—but getting back to normal as soon as we safely can will be great for everyone’s sanity.”
It’s a point echoed by Dr Kriegler. “This is not something anyone will want to do permanently, as it has been a stopgap measure not a best-practise measure,” she says. “In general, clients don’t like being excluded from the consult room and overall, I think most vets would rather an extra set of hands from someone who knows the animal, and also the opportunity to build a rapport with the owners again.
“The reality is from the vets I know, curbside is something most of us are looking forward to putting behind us.”