COVID-19 is a before and after moment to mainstream Veterinary Telehealth
Telehealth, the overarching term that encompasses all uses of technology to deliver health information, education or care remotely, has promised to revolutionise veterinary medicine. As it includes the provision of remote services, like education, triage evaluation, follow ups and management of chronic conditions, it promised to improve accessibility and quality of veterinary care services and eliminate the waiting time. In reality, it has been more of a theoretical idea than an actual, available service.
Despite the complementary role to the clinical work, only a few countries integrated this concept and put in place the necessary legislative requirements and proper infrastructure, that would enable the creation and development of telehealth. In fact, a study showed a that many veterinarians do not know and do not use telehealth strategies. These results stem from the lack of awareness among veterinarians due to the absence of proper training in the universities and the continuing education programs.
The unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in various ways. Many countries have been in a lockdown, in order to contain the spread of the virus. Many companies and educational institutions have adopted a work from home structure, while national and international authorities are asking people to take all precaution measurements and to limit or eliminate their transportation. As the world is adjusting to the changes, veterinarians need to find ways to stay healthy and free of the virus, while maintaining their services to their patients. Telehealth is one obvious solution that matches the criteria.
Based on these assumptions, the FDA, recognising the important role of veterinarians in protecting public health, decided to loosen its regulations in order to allow veterinarians to utilise telehealth. Besides, the World Health Organisation has been advocating in favor of telehealth, as a way to continue monitoring patients and decrease the hospital visits to the emergency level.
It is a sufficient alternative, that is allowing animals with chronic diseases to continue receiving monitoring and treatment from home. Moreover, it is a screening structure, that directs the emergencies to the veterinary clinics, while advising and providing solutions to non-emergency cases. In addition, even veterinary personnel in quarantine can consult and diagnose cases remotely, which is a huge relief due to the shortages of veterinarians we are experiencing globally.
In reality, telehealth in veterinary medicine is still in an embryonic stage of development, as a result it is unsure whether the current providers will be able to cover the demand in the weeks to come. Also, it is questionable if the clinics and hospitals have the capacity to provide telehealth services in such a large scale.
To wrap up, it is possible that telehealth is a trend that will be forgotten when life goes back to normal post-COVId-19. It may well be, that the increased use of the existing telehealth platforms, reported by the BVA, are temporary.The lack of regulatory provisions in many places might diminish the role and use of telehealth after the lockdown.
On the other hand, the emergence of another infectious disease is a likely scenario. The last decade we have seen the appearance of different infectious agents that caused health crisis in various levels, like MERS, Zika, Ebola and COVID-19. It is to our advantage to embrace telehealth and make the necessary adjustments that will enable its growth. It will be an additional tool in our toolkit in a future emergency.