Rapidly developing technology is bringing telemedicine to Australia’s vet industry, and experts agree it will complement—not replace—the traditional bricks-and-mortar veterinary practice. Shane Conroy reports
From wearable health trackers to virtual doctors, the latest telemedicine technology is transforming human healthcare. But does it have an application in veterinary science?
That’s a question the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recently tackled in the US as the development of new tools and online platforms are making it possible for vets to offer remote care via the internet.
The AVMA determined that video, phone and email consultations should only take place where there is a pre-existing Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR)—with the exception of emergency advice. And that is a stance echoed at home by the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).
“The rate of technological change is increasing in many aspects of our lives, and the veterinary world is no different,” says AVA President, Dr Paula Parker. “Technology offers enormous benefits to vets but it doesn’t change the principle that we’re responsible for the veterinary advice we give and for the recommendations we make. Simply using a telemedicine app or tool to provide that advice doesn’t remove our accountability.”
Dr Parker believes that while a pre-existing VCPR is fundamental to good veterinary practice, telemedicine can be a beneficial tool for improving the quality of follow-up care.
“As vets, we often pick up on additional signs during a physical examination, which may direct us down a different treatment path than we initially thought,” she says. “So if you give advice without having physically examined the animal, then you put yourself and the animal at risk that you may miss something.
“Having said that, the quality of follow-up care is often an important factor in how successful the treatment is, and some vets are using telemedicine really effectively for better monitoring, more frequent communication with owners, and to check in with their patients at home. If we can leverage those telemedicine platforms to do really good quality follow-up, it will only improve patient outcomes.”
Vets without borders
Dr Claire Jenkins is the co-founder of Australia-based online vet consultation platform, Vetchat. The company’s experienced vets provide real-time consultations via text chat, video calls and email. Clients pay online with a credit or debit card and are connected to an on-duty vet within minutes. The service is currently available between 6am and 11pm (Australian Eastern Standard Time) seven days per week. During video consultations, Vetchat vets assess the pet’s history, guide the client through a virtual examination and recommend a treatment plan.
“Telemedicine is very much in its infancy in the veterinary industry, but it’s a blue ocean when it comes to the things the data might reveal, which is very exciting.”—Gabrielle Browne, co-founder, Alpha Vet Tech
However, Dr Jenkins agrees that telemedicine is not a replacement for the fundamental importance of physical examinations, but is rather a complimentary tool vets and pet owners can use to improve the overall health of their pets.
“Telemedicine has been practised for as long as there has been telephones, and with changes in technology, we are now also able to help pet owners through video and text chat,” she says. “However, the gold standard is definitely a hands-on examination. Telemedicine is simply an add-on that can help to improve the way we deliver pet healthcare.”
For example, Dr Jenkins says that telemedicine platforms can be helpful for stressed pet owners who are seeking urgent advice outside of their local practice’s operating hours. She also sees an important role for telemedicine as a way to connect pet owners with the right information when it comes to preventive healthcare and the general wellness of their pets.
“The vet is the most trusted adviser for pets’ owners through every stage of their pets’ life cycles, and we want to help make sure pet owners are getting the best advice,” she says.
“More people are turning to the internet for information about pet care, and this can be potentially dangerous.”
Dr Jenkins says telemedicine platforms like Vetchat help to solve this problem by putting expert advice at the fingertips of pet owners. Vetchat, for example, can connect pet owners with a qualified online vet in minutes so they can get the information they need, when they need it, without turning to questionable internet sources.
The revolution is wireless
Dr Jenkins believes that Australia remains in the early stages of veterinary telemedicine adoption, and many more opportunities will arise as technology continues to progress.
“The gold standard is definitely a hands-on examination.”—Dr Claire Jenkins, co-founder, Vetchat
“With the development of wearable monitors, in time we will be able to monitor pets better from home, and the way that we deliver vet care in bricks-and-mortar clinics will change and improve,” she says.
Gabrielle Browne, co-founder of Alpha Vet Tech, agrees. Her company is developing a new wireless telemetry system—called The Wireless Zoo™—that allows vets to wirelessly monitor the vital signs of animals in real time via an easily attachable collar and tailpiece. However, more than the device itself, Browne believes the real revolution lies in the data it will collect.
She explains that data collected via The Wireless Zoo devices in use around the world will be stored on a central platform that the veterinary community will be able to access, which will help telemedicine to grow in new and possibly unexpected ways.
“The community will be able to share information on The Wireless Zoo platform for a more real-time approach to pet healthcare. As new telemedicine devices are added over time—not just by us but by other companies as well—we believe veterinary care will shift focus to real-time communication, rather than booked-time communication in the form of scheduled appointments,” she says.
“It’s very similar to human health where we are seeing data mining steer the direction of new research.”
The Wireless Zoo begins a global pilot program in October this year, with an Australian launch scheduled for early 2019. “Telemedicine is very much in its infancy in the veterinary industry, but it’s a blue ocean when it comes to the things the data might reveal, which is very exciting,” says Browne.