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Telemedicine offers animal health solutions while social distancing

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 June 2020

The impact of coronavirus on the beef industry was unforeseen and profound. One of the many lesser-considered side effects is how veterinary medicine is practiced in a continually changing landscape.

Thanks to modern communication technology, veterinarians and clients all over the country are able to develop new strategies to keep healthcare protocols flowing smoothly – even if things can’t always be done face to face.

“Telemedicine,” or the practice of remote veterinary counsel and services, has found new life in a COVID-19 world.

Calvin Booker of Feedlot Health Management Services (Feedlot Health) and president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners says producers and practices have been responsive in several ways during the crisis.

“Clients realize unnecessary visits to the production site represent a disease transmission risk related to human health and safety. They have also seen how much more efficient and timely the use of telemedicine and electronic communication tools can be for addressing questions and challenges,” he says. “Producers have been very willing to institute changes to procedures or routines to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for everyone.”

Navigating the veterinary world in time of pandemic

COVID-19 has touched everyone in all beef sectors to some capacity. What the veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) looked like before the outbreak impacts how practices and clients have functioned with social distancing. For many larger operations already familiar with different forms of remote communications, the change may not feel so abrupt.

Wulf Cattle, a company who feeds several thousand cattle throughout the country, has found the social distancing transition to be fairly smooth with little inference based on their strong VCPRs and business practices.

“The main thing for us has been prioritizing virtual meetings and making sure we have the discipline to stay in communication with our off-site veterinarians and staff,” says Nate Knobloch, a Wulf Cattle partner and overseer. “As far as management, we have been taking more caution on how we are gathering for meetings and doing as much as we can with our vets and nutritionists virtually for the time being.”

In general, recurrent clients with well-established and long-standing VCPRs have been able to maintain regular services with a focus on social distancing and personal hygiene along with strategic use of telemedicine, Booker notes.

“The veterinarian and these types of clients have a good working relationship, so various forms of telemedicine work well in this scenario,” Booker says. “Veterinarians generally are performing most ‘regular’ services for these clients, as long as it doesn’t consume PPE [personal protective equipment] that should or could be used in human medicine.”

Dan Thomson, professor and chair of Iowa State University’s Department of Animal Science says it is important to maintain a VCPR before time of crisis so veterinarians and producers can learn how to work with one another in advance.

He explains, “They set up the initial VCPR by being together on-site and learning the production practices, understand the animals, and they are close enough to come provide emergency care or case follow-up.”

Challenges and rewards

How challenging telemedicine is depends on the practice and veterinarians involved. In the case of Feedlot Health, previous extensive development of remote access tools helped them immensely. These include things like automatic uploads and reviews of daily disease prevention and treatment records, digital photos from all post-mortem cases, conference calls, text messages and regular voice calls.

“We are in routine contact with our clients on a daily basis as part of the services we provide them, so using telemedicine has not been an issue for us,” says Booker.

As a client, Knobloch notes that their trust with off-site veterinarians has been the main reason telemedicine has worked for them.

“That trust was built over several years when they were on-site doing visits. Where there is high levels of trust, doing more things virtually is fine and in a lot of ways more efficient and cost-effective,” he says. “However, there will need to continue to be on-site visits to foster the relationships with new team members in the future.”

Even in the best circumstances, telemedicine does present its own significant challenges that are difficult to overcome without in-person interaction. These include establishing a rapport with a client, understanding the physical layout and workers of their operation and getting to know workers involved with animal care. Likewise, visual observation is an irreplaceable diagnostic and interpretive tool.

What does the future hold?

A hot topic right now is how we will continue to live daily life and run businesses in a post-COVID-19 world. Some of the ways veterinarians and producers have found to cope are positive enough they may very well be here to stay or at least better utilized in future difficult situations.

“In our case, I think it has re-emphasized with our clients that ongoing communication and familiarity with what is happening on their operations can happen very efficiently and effectively with the appropriate use of telemedicine and electronic communication platforms,” says Booker.

He also notes that on-site visits have been and always will be both necessary and valuable, but they should always be structured with purpose in mind as opposed to tradition or ritual habit.

Bovine practitioners who weren’t familiar with telemedicine techniques in the past have hopefully been able to explore and utilize them in appropriate situations. Another benefit Booker notes is the current situation has provided an opportunity for practices to charge for their remote services.

“Most veterinarians have probably been reluctant to try telemedicine services because it is new and they don’t know how their clients will react as compared to in-person services,” he says. “But for producers, I am hopeful that the current situation allows them to realize the value of veterinary access and knowledge, even if it is delivered via remote means.”

Similar to other veterinary services, Booker reminds producers they should expect to be invoiced for telemedicine services.

To make telemedicine work, Thomson says veterinarians need to spend time teaching their clients how to do physical exam procedures and know their patient history.

“Thanks to cameras on phones, you can see the lesions or injury or lameness,” he says. “It will take some coordination, but I think telemedicine is here to stay, so getting procedures in place with your clients is important. We see small-animal veterinary clinics using telemedicine routinely for specialist referrals without having to drive a long distance with a pet.”

Like many other practitioners, Booker and Thomson believe telemedicine will be part of the future of animal care. On-site care will always an essential part of what they do but, with modern tools, more can be done off-site to better service clients and more effectively develop treatment options, especially in parts of the country where veterinary access is scarce. COVID-19 has certainly created an unfortunate but real-life scenario to put these to use and gain familiarity for clients and practitioners alike.  end mark

Getty Images.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.