The COVID-19 crisis has seen an exponential global expansion in online communication, both in the way we connect and why we connect.
Everything from business meetings to rock concerts and museum tours have moved into the virtual world, accessible to anyone with an internet connection and device to view it.
Telehealth or ehealth for humans is something that has existed in some form almost since the invention of the telephone, but in recent years, veterinary medicine too has begun to embrace the opportunities it offers.
As with human telehealth, the veterinary equivalent is not designed to take the place of hands-on consultations, but to complement the services offered, enabling owners to access veterinary advice quickly for a range of circumstances.
According to Vet Practice magazine, it can be "a game changer in a triage situation, allowing qualified vets to quickly assess a situation via video call and advise if emergency treatment is required."
The article's author Clea Sherman goes on to say that "telemedicine and mobile vet services can make a significant difference to the common issue of small problems with animals becoming big ones."
Not only does it provide pets and owners with an immediate and stress-free veterinary consultation, but it could also help address what appears to be a growing shortage of vets according to a survey conducted by the Lincoln Institute in 2019, which found practices had been struggling to fill vacancies for veterinarians.
One of the newest players in the telemedicine field is Greencross Vets who joins other providers like VetChat, Phone A Vet and Pawssum.
Greencross Vets is rolling out a nationwide telemedicine service for pets, WebVet, through which they will offer access to a network of 1000 veterinary professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Chief Executive Officer at Petbarn and Greencross Vets George Wahby, said this new initiative would be a much-needed support network for pet parents across Australia.
"By using technology to provide this essential service, we're able to safeguard our clients, patients and team members by minimising face-to-face interaction, whilst providing always-on support at the touch of a button which is useful not just in these current times but also when people may find it hard to get to a clinic," Mr Wahby said.
Greencross Vets' Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Magdoline Awad believes accessibility is key in providing effective support.
"Thanks to our national network of general practice veterinary clinics, referral hospitals and animal emergency centres we are able to provide round-the-clock 24/7 advice to Australia's pets and provide reassurance to pet owners when they need it most."
The Australian Veterinary Association recently ratified a telemedicine policy, perhaps reflecting the uptake and growth of the industry.
The policy states that "technology is rapidly transforming the practice of veterinary medicine, which provides the opportunity to improve the delivery of animal healthcare and welfare; however, it also presents challenges to practitioners, animal owners and carers."
It also reinforces and clarifies the accountability and legal responsibilities of vets participating in telemedicine, echoing those that already exist in a real world clinic situation including that a "bona fide veterinarian-client-patient relationship", a clearly defined professional relationship between a vet and an animal owner, should exist, except in the case of emergencies.
The guidelines do highlight several factors which could be viewed as significant limitations of the system.
The absence of this vet-client relationship combined with the inability to actually physically examine an animal "may", it says, increase the risk of what it terms "errors in clinical judgement".
Ultimately however it "encourages the development of technologies that benefit the health and welfare of animals ..."
- Some information in this article was supplied by Greencross Vets.