Wow, what a year 2021 has been! It has been a year of many things including the covid-19 mass vaccination rollout (thanks to all the amazing vaccine-making superheroes, scientists and the NHS!) the world’s first malaria vaccine, and Vets across the globe were introduced to the concept of telemedicine and remote prescribing. Whilst telemedicine is a rapidly advancing technology which provides new opportunities of Veterinary care, it doesn’t come without its challenges. An entire book series could be written all about telemedicine within the Veterinary profession and perhaps one day it will be. But for now as this year is coming to an end, this article will review the 2021 telemedicine highlights.

What is telemedicine?

In definition, telemedicine is ‘the remote diagnosis and treatment of patients by means of telecommunications technology’. The communication may be via emails, wireless tools, two-way video, telephones, text messages and other methods.

Telemedicine has been around for much longer than you think. Origins can be traceable in the human medical field back to 1905, with long distance transfer of ECG’s. NASA has even played a significant role in the development of telemedicine and utilised this tool to deliver healthcare in the remotest locations on earth (and beyond it!). During the past 30 years, telemedicine development has expanded. Its development has been forced to grow even more rapidly globally since the start of the covid-19 pandemic to deliver pet healthcare remotely. 

How is telemedicine used within the Veterinary Profession?

Certain aspects of telemedicine are already well established in specific areas of Veterinary medicine. For example, every time I phone a Client to report their pets’ blood or lab results, I am participating in telemedicine. However, at the start of the covid-19 lockdown and disease concerns intensified, Vets worldwide were forced to utilise this tool in more depth for the very first time to allow ‘social distancing’ to take place whilst still providing a ‘duty of care’ towards their patients. 

Under normal circumstances, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) code of professional conduct does NOT allow Veterinary Surgeons to prescribe Veterinary medicines (POM-V’s) without a physical examination of an animal having first taken place. However, in March 2020 (as the first covid-19 lockdown was announced) temporary measures were put into place. The guidance stated that Veterinary Surgeons may only prescribe POM-V medicines remotely where there is no other option. As I am writing this article, these temporary measures are still in place but are being continuously reviewed so watch this space!

As a recently graduated small animal Vet during this time, I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by remote prescribing as it was an area of Veterinary that was very unfamiliar to myself and my Practice. Furthermore, under RCVS guidance, telemedicine in the form of phone/video consultation very quickly fell into Practices and it became a temporary way of life in the workplace.

The benefits of telemedicine during covid-19:

Below I have listed just some of the advantages of telemedicine during covid-19, this list is not exhaustive:

  • Access to Veterinary care – whilst owners are self-isolating, telemedicine services and remote prescribing provide an alternative method for them to access care for their beloved pet. For example, we have been able to provide telephone consultations for Owners whose pets are due their routine prescription check. This ensures that animals can continue with their long-term medication to support their health and wellbeing. 
  • Helps to prevent the spread of covid-19 – telemedicine provides opportunities to provide animal care from a distance. This has been vitally important to maintain social distancing to reduce disease spread. Only those patients and their Owners who really needed to be seen were invited to the practice.
  • Emergency case triage – At one stage, most Veterinary practices were operating on an emergency basis only. Telemedicine communication allows Vets to distinguish between urgent cases. Only those patients who needed to be seen (as it would be detrimental to their health if they weren’t) were invited to a physical appointment. Most routine appointments were initially cancelled to minimise contact between Clients and Veterinary staff as a supported attempt to protect human health and reduce coronavirus spread.
  • Maintain Client-Vet-patient relationship – Many patients are on long-term medications for chronic disease processes such as diabetes. Telemedicine is proving a useful method of maintaining regular communication and providing continued care and support to these patients and Owners. 
  • Staff shortages – Unfortunately, with staff being furloughed, testing positive or self-isolating practices were/are running on reduced staff levels. This leads to less available appointments and providing phone consultations for Clients allows additional opportunities to care for your pets.

Telemedicine challenges

Whilst telemedicine plays a large part of Veterinary healthcare today, it doesn’t come without its flaws. Below touches briefly on some of these flaws, this list is non exhaustive:

  • Let’s start with the most obvious challenge of telemedicine, not performing a physical examination on your pet. Obviously, there are video and photograph opportunities which Clients often share with their Vet during remote prescribing and this can often support and strengthen a diagnosis. However, inevitably missed opportunities may arise as physically examining an animal can allow disease processes to be identified. Thankfully, most practices are now able to safely conduct physical examinations on your pets again! Telemedicine can never replace a clinical examination, but it definitely acts as a great tool in many scenarios.
  • Other pitfalls with telemedicine include limited technology access and technology failure, which is always a possibility. 

Telemedicine is a hot topic within the Veterinary field… 

…but it is definitely still playing a vital role during this global pandemic. Furthermore, pandemic aside, telemedicine plays a larger role than just during covid and is continuously advancing. Some practices are now incorporating this into the workplace and there are now Vet services who offer telemedicine alone (whilst adhering to strict RCVS prescribing rules). Being able to prescribe medications remotely and also protect human health during such uncertain times has been a blessing and we will continue to adapt in whatever way we can to provide care for animals. 

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Coronavirus: RCVS Council temporarily permits vets to remotely prescribe veterinary medicines – Professional Guidance