No longer just a sideline, online veterinary consultations are now big business for some veterinary practices. But questions remain over whether all vets should offer them. John Burfitt investigates
There’s nothing new about online veterinary consultations—this is a service that has been gaining in popularity over the past decade.
But what is significant, according to Dr Sue Samuelsson of i-Vet in Darwin, is the fast-changing demographics of the clients accessing the service.
“I initially saw this as something only people living in remote areas would want to access, as that was the reason we began doing this in the first place in 2010—out of sheer necessity,” Dr Samuelsson explains.
“But that’s not the case now, as we see a complete cross-section of people booking it. I also assumed it would only be computer-savvy people in their 30s or 40s trying us, but I can no longer say that either. I am now talking with many, many older people who just want to avoid the drama that the trip to a clinic can involve.”
Online consulting began as an adjunct to Dr Samuelsson’s medical practice, which she opened in Darwin in 2009, to cater to clients in remote outback communities where no veterinary service was available. Within a year, the demand for online consultations was so strong, it became a regular service of the clinic.
An online consultation usually involves the vet on one end and the animal and owner on the other, with the consultation conducted by video through Skype or FaceTime services, with resolutions now so clear that accurate details can be detected and diagnosis made.
Dramatic improvements in camera technology, along with the roll out of increased broadband speeds, have changed the way online consultations have been delivered in recent years.
Such has been the growing demand in recent years that i-Vet opened as a separate business just a year ago. It is now a full-time service, meeting what Dr Samuelsson calls a “full-time demand” for patients across Australia—in metro, regional and remote areas.
Dr Samuelsson instigated research into what are the main reasons clients are choosing online consultations over clinic visits. While the research is not yet complete, Dr Samuelsson says two important factors have already emerged.
“It seems to come down to convenience and fair value,” she says. “We are not a cheap service, but we do a lot of follow-up to ensure people see this as complete value for what they pay.
“It also seems many people would rather have this kind of consultation than drive for a long time, dealing with a distressed animal the entire way and then the animal’s fear once inside the clinic. For others, like people from the city, it’s when they have come home from work so the timing suits. We are going to be see much more of this.”
The standard fee for an i-Vet consultant is $80, with a prescription fee of $20. Emergency sessions are charged at $150.
The past 18 months have seen an equally dramatic period of growth for Dr Leigh Davidson of Your Vet Online, based out of Sydney. Your Vet Online provides pet owners direct access to a veterinarian 24/7.
“We are streamlining the process by triaging the calls, helping out where we can and then referring on. So clinics do not get bothered by cases that could have been taken care of with some basic advice.”—Dr Leigh Davidson, Your Vet Online
Dr Davidson, whose veterinary experience encapsulates clinical small animal and equine practice and practice ownership in New Zealand and Australia, launched the online service in October 2015 as an additional offering to in-clinic consultations.
What began on a Facebook page grew into a full-time service in June 2016, and Dr Davidson’s estimates she can now receive as many 25 online calls a day. She believes the online vet is filling an important role in taking care of specific areas of customer demand, and in the process, avoids the potential dangers to animals posed by too much consulting with Dr Google and online forums.
“I have spoken with some vets who are concerned we are taking jobs off regular vets, and that’s not what we are doing,” Dr Davidson says. “If anything, we are helping take care of our profession, by offering proactive advice to animal owners. I also hate Dr Google as how does anyone even know if the information they have found even relates specifically to their animal?
“In many ways, we are streamlining the process by triaging the calls, helping out where we can and then referring on. So clinics do not get bothered by cases that could have been taken care of with some basic advice, while owners who have pets that do need to see a vet, are fully informed of options.”
Dr Davidson reveals, however, that she still needs to explain to some colleagues the validity of online consultations. “I’m not screwing our profession over, as I have been accused of doing,” she states.
“This really can be of benefit to other vets. There are a lot of clients going off to follow-up sessions with vets, with a list I have given them of what needs to be followed up on. In those cases, the clients are well prepared,
had everything explained and understand what happens next.
“In some cases, I have had those vets later call me to say those consults were so easy as the clients had been well prepared. That’s when they find we are all on the same page.”
Dr Peter Higgins is one person who has been following the evolution of online consultations with some interest. Associate dean-Curriculum in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, Dr Higgins believes there is an important role for online consultations, but cautions that only a well-qualified vet with a number of years’ experience under their belt has the capacity to offer them.
“This is not something for new graduates to have a go at, and not something they should be doing within the first five years of their career,” he says. “It’s hard enough to be a problem solver, diagnosing issues and being a clinician when you are actually examining the animal live. If you can’t examine them and touch them, that’s when I am concerned.
“I would warn anyone that if you misdiagnose anything, for example, the ramifications with the veterinary practice boards would be the same. This is a sector that provides a good service to the community, but it’s not the be all or end all.”
And yet it’s the younger vets, Dr Sue Samuelsson says, who have demonstrated the clearest understanding of the model’s potential in treatments.
“The younger vets I have seen are open to it and are really creative in ways of finding info through the screen,” she says. “But I completely agree—you can never replace a clinic visit. I like to think of it, though, as an adjunctive consultation, helping out in a different way and making an important contribution. We just need to be open at looking at all the ways this can be effective.
“I know some vets fear everything will go online, but it simply can’t. For many people, however, an online consultation is far better than no consultation at all.”