What is telemedicine?
Telemedicine is the act of practicing medicine from a distance. A telemedicine visit is typically conducted over telephone, text messaging, chat, email, or videoconference. This allows a veterinarian to diagnose and treat your pet’s medical condition remotely, without the need for an in-person visit.
Historically, telemedicine has been something that veterinarians could only provide for existing clients and patients. Due to social/physical distancing requirements brought on by COVID-19 however, some authorities are relaxing requirements and allowing for the increased use of veterinary telemedicine.
What should I expect during my pet’s telemedicine appointment?
Your telemedicine appointment may, in part, be conducted by a registered veterinary technician (RVT), just like an in-clinic visit. The RVT will collect information (see below) about the reason for your appointment and take your pet's medical history. A licensed veterinarian will complete the appointment, just like an in-clinic visit. This may be a veterinarian that is familiar with your pet (for example, a veterinarian that normally works at your veterinary hospital) or it may be a veterinarian that is new to you. During this appointment, the veterinarian will gather necessary information to arrive at a tentative diagnosis and treatment plan for your pet.
The first (and, in some ways, the most important) component of a telemedicine exam is the medical history. The veterinarian will ask about your concerns, then ask more specific questions based on your responses. You may also be asked for general background information about your pet. The medical history collected during a telemedicine appointment is similar to the history that would be collected during an in-person veterinary visit.
Next, the veterinarian will perform an abbreviated physical exam, focused on the area of concern. If you are concerned about your dog’s limping, for example, you may be asked to provide a video of your dog walking or running. If you are concerned about a skin abnormality, you may be asked to part your pet’s hair and allow the veterinarian to see your pet’s skin. The veterinarian may also ask you to check your pet’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and/or gum color, talking you through how to check each of these things.
In many cases, the medical history and limited exam provide enough information for the veterinarian to arrive at a tentative diagnosis and start treatment. You may be asked to take steps at home to help your pet recover, or medication may be prescribed. Your veterinarian will also provide guidance on what to expect and what to do next if the desired benefits are not seen.
What information do I need for my telemedicine appointment?
The medical history is an important component of a telemedicine visit. Before your appointment, gather information on your pet’s history and your current concern. Look at a calendar and write down a timeline of your pet’s problems.
Be prepared to answer questions like:
- What is the problem with your pet today?
- When did you first notice this problem?
- Since you first noticed the problem, has it worsened, improved, or stayed the same?
- Is your pet eating and drinking normally?
- Is your pet urinating and defecating normally?
- Has your pet had diarrhea or vomiting?
- Is your pet breathing normally?
- Have you noticed coughing or sneezing?
- Have you noticed any other changes in your pet’s health and/or behavior?
- Is your pet currently up to date on vaccines?
- Is your pet current on flea, tick, and heartworm prevention?
- Does your pet have any other major health issues?
What should I do to prepare ahead of time?
Try to take photos or videos of your pet before your appointment. Your pet may suddenly "seem fine" during your appointment or not "perform" making it difficult for your veterinarian to assess the problem.
"Try to take photos or videos of your pet before your appointment."
Some telemedicine systems are chat-based and sending the history, pictures, and video recordings ahead of time allows the veterinary team to review files prior to your appointment. Video conferencing can be frustrating for everyone if your dog barks the entire time.
What items will I need for my telemedicine appointment?
Most telemedicine appointments involve the use of some type of video chat. This may be through a general, all-purpose videoconferencing program or it may involve the use of an app created specifically for the telemedicine provider. Telephone calls are still considered telemedicine, but have obvious limitations because they are restricted to verbal descriptions of the problem.
For video conferencing, you will need a device (such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer) with reliable high-speed internet access. Before your telemedicine appointment, ensure that your device is capable of recording and transmitting video and that you have a good internet connection.
Conduct your visit in a quiet area with good lighting. The veterinarian will need a clear view of you and your pet, so it is important to be in a well-lit area. Minimizing sound will allow you and the veterinarian to hear each other clearly, while also limiting distractions.
Have your pet with you before the call starts, on a leash or in a small room with no hiding spaces. You want to avoid starting the call and then finding that your pet has decided to hide under your bed!
"Have your pet with you before the call starts, on a leash or in a small room with no hiding spaces."
If possible, have a friend or family member with you. If the veterinarian needs to see a specific body part, one person can restrain your pet while the other person holds the camera. This improves the likelihood of the veterinarian being able to accurately assess your pet’s condition.
Is there anything else I need to know?
Have your preferred pharmacy’s information available. Some drugs used in veterinary medicine can be picked up from a local human pharmacy, while other medications may need to be shipped to you by a veterinary pharmacy.
Finally, be flexible. Not all concerns can be addressed through telemedicine. If your veterinarian is unable to arrive at a diagnosis via telemedicine, he or she can help you determine the next step for your pet to ensure that he or she receives optimal care.