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FDA says yes to telemedicine—by not saying no

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On Tuesday, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it’s temporarily easing restrictions on veterinarians’ use of telemedicine so they can more easily treat pets during the coronavirus pandemic.

That, coupled with the decision of many communities to accept the US Department of Homeland Security’s recommendation that veterinary care be deemed an “essential service,” means that a lot of practice owners and their staff can breathe a little more easily.

Specifically, the FDA announced that “in order to help veterinarians utilize telemedicine to address animal health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA generally does not intend to enforce the animal examination and premises visit portion of the VCPR [veterinary client patient relationship] requirements relevant to the FDA regulations governing extralabel drug use in animals. . . . This will allow veterinarians to prescribe drugs in an extralabel manner . . . without direct examination of or making visits to their patients, which will limit human-to-human interaction and potential spread of COVID-19 in the community.”

Which means, basically, that the FDA is willing to temporarily turn a blind eye to the strictures of the VPCR, which requires veterinarians to physically examine pets before diagnosing them—thus allowing them to prescribe drugs based on a video examination.

In explaining the agency’s decision, FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD, said, “The FDA recognizes the vital role veterinarians play in protecting public health. This pandemic has had impacts on many of our everyday lives and professions, and, during this time, we need to provide veterinarians with the latitude to expand the use of telemedicine in the care of animals.”

That latitude gives practices room to breathe—and another way to keep their doors open—during the pandemic.

“This is a bright light in an otherwise bleak landscape,” said AAHA Senior Veterinary Officer Heather Loenser, DVM. “This will allow prescribing without an in-person physical exam, which will facilitate social distancing.”

If the thought of implementing telemedicine at your hospital feels daunting on top of all the other COVID-19-related crises you’re facing, many companies offer turnkey telemedicine services to help you get up and running.

VitusVet offers a range of telemedicine services to streamline workflow, facilitate client communication, and increase client loyalty. Anipanion has a range of services to fit a variety of telemedicine needs. GuardianVets just launched a unified telemedicine and triage support platform that helps pet businesses and veterinarians connect directly to customers and clients.

To get a closer look at what partnering with a telemedicine service might look like, NEWStat spoke with GuardianVets founder John Dillon, who described the company’s new offering as a “comprehensive telemedicine and virtual communications platform . . . built purposely to integrate into a [hospital’s] practice management software.”

The service grew out of GuardianVets’ pre-existing after-hours triage service. Dillon says the whole reason he started the company was so veterinary practices could offer continuity of care to clients, a lack of which he’d experienced firsthand as a pet owner: “[I] reached out to my practice after hours and got a voicemail that said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re closed. Leave a message or go to the emergency room,’” Dillon recalls. He wound up taking his pet to the ER for what turned out to be a nonemergency—and it cost him “a ton of money.”

He wasn’t happy. “I thought, why is this something that we wouldn’t find acceptable for humans, but we do find acceptable for our pets?” Which led him to another thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if my veterinary hospital could offer continuity of care?” Which led, in turn, to GuardianVets and its after-hours triage service.

As the company grew, it merged the concept of continuity of care with convenience—and put it on our phones. GuardianVets found veterinary clients wanted an all-in-one telemedicine platform, and its platform offers veterinary practices a way to safeguard their client/patient relationships while adding new ways to communicate that are especially useful given the current crisis. The platform allows practices to:

  • Conduct virtual visits/telemedicine within their VCPR (which will become vitally important once the FDA starts enforcing observance of the VCPR again, post pandemic)
  • Document telemedicine visits and seamlessly monetize remote consultations
  • Provide clients with a comprehensive and customized mobile app
  • Communicate with their clients via text
  • Receive direct client feedback
  • Customize client preferences and track real-time performance through a single dashboard
  • Offer after-hour triage support staffed by GuardianVets’ team of licensed veterinarians and credentialed veterinary technicians

Dillon says that in-house triage team helps set GuardianVets apart: “Each team member has at least five years’ experience in general practice or in emergency medicine,” Dillon adds. Plus, each undergoes extensive training in GuardianVets’ rigorous protocols. And all are fully licensed and insured. “These things offer a different solution to the practice than [simply] outsourcing,” Dillon says.

Although the FDA intends to temporarily suspend certain federal VCPR requirements, veterinarians still need to consider state VCPR requirements that may exist in their practice area.

Photo credit: © iStock/hobo_018