Science & Technology

What the New Veterinary Virtual Care Association Means for Pet Healthcare

Pet owners witnessed a revolution in human healthcare spinning forth from the thirty years running up to COVID-19

Aug, 18 2020

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This guest post is by two of the founders of the VVCA, Mark Cushing, CEO & Founder, Animal Policy Group, and Eleanor Green, Senior Advisor and Consultant, Animal Policy Group & Former Dean, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.

In the spring of 2020, pet owners witnessed a revolution in human healthcare spinning forth from the thirty years running up to COVID-19. Wherever one looked, telemedicine had become a staple in how hospitals, doctors, and other health professionals delivered care to patients. This was true in both rural America and the heart of our largest cities. Not only was it prevalent, it was diverse; a simple online search of telemedicine reveals the vast offerings and extent of adoption in human healthcare. Not so for pets. 

It makes sense why telemedicine has achieved such traction. Patients have the choice to see their own doctor anytime, anywhere, for quality care and continuity of care at their own comfort and convenience. Physicians can put everyone together at the same time in the same place, avoiding fragmentation of care and making care more affordable. The developing ecosystem supports a comparable standard of care across many disciplines, vendor options, reliable networks, secure services, expanded insurance coverage, reimbursement, and billing capabilities. Even Cleveland Clinic made telemedicine available for $49 to consult with one of their doctors. 

It is safe to say that every prestigious medical center is offering telemedicine at some level. As the storms of COVID-19 loomed overhead, we saw human hospitals aggressively ramp up their virtual care delivery systems, and it made a difference.

Until January of 2016, veterinary medicine shrugged its shoulders and largely dismissed the notion that the lessons of telemedicine in human healthcare had anything to offer. A repeated concern was that the veterinarian had to put her hands on the patient to make an assessment. 

Much changed with the formation of the Veterinary Innovation Council (VIC), and your two authors were there at its birth. A diverse and talented VIC Board assembled to make a positive impact on the veterinary world by tackling issues that stretched across the profession and industry but perhaps are not as easily addressed by large trade associations which, even when interested, simply cannot be as nimble. Academic deans, a former president of AVMA, a nationally recognized Veterinary Technician, and business leaders decided that telemedicine would be VIC’s first issue, and we pursued it for more than two years. 

We started conversations across the country, debated opponents, wrote articles, and developed a simple approach to engaging veterinarians with virtual care. Our goals were to: (1) explore its everyday use with current clients, many of whom are familiar with it in their own care; and (2) design a policy that allows telemedicine to be used to start a veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) if the veterinarian is comfortable in her judgment getting started. The American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) officially endorsed a similar policy and we were off to the races. As a collaborative, industry-wide initiative, VIC is certainly fulfilling its charge to lead innovation in global animal health, especially regarding telemedicine.

COVID-19 pushed the practice boundaries and comfort levels of veterinary practitioners in so many ways, but none more than the need for virtual care to treat pets whose owners could not, or would not, seek care at the clinic. Suddenly, more than 3000 people joined Jessica Voegelsang’s Veterinary Telemedicine Facebook community. Veterinarians were calling for help. Webinars sprouted daily with practice tips on how to deploy virtual care and be paid to do it (contrary to some expectations, telemedicine is not a giveaway). Skeptics gave it a try, and many veterinary clinics went all in. 

In some states—Michigan most prominently—small-animal practitioners had no choice, as the governor ordered veterinarians to use telemedicine before allowing a client to visit the clinic, and required an actual telemedicine plan in place for each practice. 

What happened across America? Did pets die or suffer further injury because veterinarians deployed virtual tools alongside their in-clinic resources? No, but a lot of pets received quality treatment, veterinarians and clients alike became familiar with virtual care for pets (and actually liked it), and many practices found that virtual care saved the day financially.

The time was right to form the Veterinary Virtual Care Association (VVCA), that had been under consideration for some time. On April 28, 2020, eleven leaders in the profession urgently created and launched an association to facilitate virtual care throughout veterinary medicine with these goals:

  1. Promote and educate veterinary professionals (not just the veterinarians) about best practices with virtual technologies and communications tools.

  2. Develop standards and protocols to ensure that virtual care is done right.

  3. Allow practitioners to share experiences, get their questions answered, and become comfortable with the same tools human healthcare has enjoyed for thirty years.

  4. Teach healthcare teams how to work together to make virtual care a regular component of the practice and how to be paid for these services.

  5. Promote progressive policies, such as telemedicine, to remove barriers to the use of virtual care, building in part on the vast learning experience of COVID-19.

Our first ever Veterinary Virtual Care Summit is being held in tandem with the Veterinary Innovation Summit (VIS) and North American Veterinary Community on August 18, 2020. Attendance is free, thanks to generous sponsors throughout the industry and the profession. Our agenda is packed with useful and inspiring lessons for professionals at any level. VVCA is not interested in replacing in-clinic care, just supplementing traditional models with modern, consumer-friendly and effective digital tools.

Currently, telemedicine and its regulations are being discussed by state veterinary licensing boards across North America and beyond. We are confident they will ultimately follow the lead of medical licensing boards, which permit telemedicine in all 50 states, including the virtual establishment of the doctor-patient relationship. 

Variations among states persist. Most states require physicians to be licensed to practice in the state where telemedicine originates, while others require the physician to have a valid license in the state where the patient is located. Many states are taking steps to allow physicians to practice using telemedicine; in fact, there are several states that issue special licenses or certificates for telehealth that allow delivery of telemedicine across state lines. 

Ultimately, the importance and prevalence of telemedicine for animals comes down to access to care. We all know that upwards of 40% of pets do not receive regular healthcare, and it’s not because their owners don’t love their pets. Many factors, predominantly cost, inconvenience, and distance, make clinic visits difficult. Virtual care breaks through these obstacles, whether for a rural Kentucky farmer or a senior living by herself with two cats in a Bethesda, MD high-rise apartment. 

Pet owners need information and guidance from the veterinary team, and telemedicine is often the easiest and most affordable means to provide it. We encourage you to join VVCA, not only to learn more, but to help advance virtual care within the veterinary community. 

COVID-19 has created a number of “new normals” for our society and for veterinary medicine. The intent of the VVCA is to leverage the opportunities created during this pandemic while knocking down the barriers, as we collectively take veterinary healthcare to even higher levels through virtual care. A case can easily be made that virtual care has never been more essential than now.

We hope to see you at our virtual summit on August 18, 2020.