Telemedicine is an expanding healthcare movement for dogs and cats as well as humans. It has its drawbacks and legal limitations, but it also offers some advantages, especially to animal parents who don’t have holistic vet clinics nearby.
Telemedicine is a growing facet of human medicine. The need for telemedicine in the veterinary field is also under discussion, along with how to effectively and legally offer this important service. In this article, I’ll introduce you to telemedicine for dogs and cats, examine its pros and cons, and show you where this budding service is heading.
What exactly is telemedicine?
Telemedicine involves a doctor or other healthcare team member using telephone or email to provide medical advice and assistance to a patient. In human medicine, telemedicine may also involve the use of Skype or a mobile app to communicate with and visually observe the patient to help provide a diagnosis, or follow up on a case, such as a post-operative examination and discussion.
The appropriate application of telemedicine in veterinary medicine can enhance animal care by facilitating communication, diagnostics, treatments, client education, scheduling, and other tasks necessary to helping your dog or cat.
Laws and regulations
One question that often arises is whether or not it is legal for veterinarians to offer telemedicine to their clients. The short answer is “yes”, but there is a caveat: telemedicine may only be conducted within an existing veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) as defined by the applicable state’s Veterinary Practice Act (these acts vary by state). If a VCPR does not currently exist, the veterinarian should refrain from diagnosing, prognosing or treating the patient in question (see sidebar below for more info). An exception involves advice given in an emergency situation until an animal can be seen by or transported to a veterinarian.
Pros and cons of telemedicine
In the debate about telemedicine, there are several advantages and drawbacks to consider:
- Allows quick and easy access to medical advice
- Helps an animal parent determine if the issue requires emergency or follow-up care
- May lower cost of care for the animal parent
- Gives animal parents access to holistic or integrative advice in areas where these services are not offered by local veterinarians.
- Lack of a physical examination may preclude a correct diagnosis if such has not been made by a prior veterinarian, or if that diagnosis is questionable
- Advice given by the doctor or technician on call may be inaccurate and delay proper medical care since a physical examination is not possible
- The animal parent may choose not to follow the advice (especially if urgent care is needed) due to additional costs, resulting in harm to the dog or cat
- It can be difficult to give accurate advice without seeing the animal
I understand both sides of this argument and agree with many of these points. Personally, I believe that consulting with an animal parent on the phone can be problematic, especially since a physical examination is not possible, and any required laboratory testing may not have been done.
Telemedicine widens access to holistic care
However, as a holistic veterinarian, I know that most dog and cat parents do not have access to someone with my training or expertise. Often, the animal’s prior doctor has done everything a traditional doctor could do to help the dog or cat, but the patient still fails to heal properly.
Using telemedicine, I and my holistic colleagues can often offer other natural therapies that may mean the difference between life and death for the animal. To deprive the dog or cat of the specialized help I can offer simply because I can’t physically examine him makes no sense, since this deprivation of care results in further harm or even death to the animal. Since I’m morally obligated by my oath to “do no harm”, failing to help when the animal parent seeks my care certainly results in me doing “a lot of harm”!
A rational solution
Currently, any doctor can consult with his own clients via phone or email regarding patients already in his practice. And while many state boards of veterinary medicine currently do not allow consultations with animal parents who have not physically presented their dogs or cats to the doctor, that will likely change in a few years. This is especially true as larger corporations continue to purchase veterinary hospitals and funnel large donations to those who make the laws.
A rational solution would involve a change in liability laws that would allow telemedicine to occur between doctors and potential clients, even though the doctor may not have physically examined the dog or cat. If a physical examination would help the doctor make a proper diagnosis and treatment recommendation, and the client is unable to comply due to factors such as distance, laws could be changed to decrease liability for an inaccurate diagnosis and treatment. In other words, the client needs to accept the potential downside of a consultation via telemedicine, and give up the right to sue for malpractice. Doctors can also decline consultations in cases where an examination is critical to diagnosis and treatment, and decline to help the client if appropriate medical records and lab tests are not provided.
Telemedicine is here to stay and will only grow in use and popularity. While it has limitations and legal issues, expanding the options we use to help animals can improve their care. It can also give you, the dog or cat parent, more access to veterinary advice on holistic care, and more knowledge for making the correct decisions for your companion’s well-being.
Veterinarian Dr. Shawn Messonnier wrote The Natural Health Bible for Dogs and Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and 8 Weeks to a Healthy Dog. He’s the pet care expert for Martha Stewart Living’s “Dr. Shawn – The Natural Vet” on Sirius Satellite Radio, and creator of Dr. Shawn’s Pet Organics. His practice, Paws & Claws Animal Hospital (petcarenaturally.com), is in Plano, Texas.