AAHA hospital goes all-in on telehealth

Telehealth?

“I was never a big fan of it,” says Lee Allen, director of operations at AAHA-accredited Happy Tails Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Allen was interested in the possibilities of telehealth prepandemic, but had a number of reservations. He was initially reluctant to adopt telehealth because he thought most of the available platforms were geared toward an “ask Dr. Google” model, plus he had issues with a lack of audits and controls with those models, and felt they were totally separate from the clinic model.

He changed his mind and became an enthusiastic adopter during the pandemic—largely because those models had improved dramatically, he says.

And Happy Tails had special needs.

Strictly an emergency hospital, Happy Tails is open Monday through Friday from 6:00 pm to 8:00 am, and 24 hours Saturday and Sunday. They had no one covering the phones weekdays when they were closed. And the phones were ringing off the hook when they were open.

“Our CSRs were getting overloaded due to sheer call volume,” Allen says. “Historically the traditional model in the vet clinic is, if the CSRs can’t get to the phones when they’re ringing, somebody else tries to pick up,  whether it’s management, the medical support team, the owners, whoever’s there.”  

That was hard on everybody, particularly the medical team.

“Our medical team was getting stressed out because they were having to stop their work on patients in order to answer the calls.” 

And those calls weren’t 30-second calls, Allen notes: “It’s always anywhere from one minute to five minutes.” When he added up the amount of time that the medical team was spending answering incoming calls, he was horrified: Six months into lockdown, the Happy Tails medical team was spending anywhere from one to three hours a day being pulled away from medical care to answer phones. “That alone made the decision.”

Happy Tails hired GuardianVets, a Chicago-based veterinary telehealth platform staffed by credentialed veterinary technicians, to handle their overflow calls.

“If nobody picks up after three rings, our system forwards the call to GuardianVets and they triage for us,” Allen says. The phone are set to forward calls 24 hours a day, whether Happy Tails is open or closed. Allen says they’re averaging 600 to 700 overflow calls a month.  

“Now my medical team is not answering incoming calls, so they’re able to spend that time taking care of the patients instead of getting caught on the phone,” Allen says. “That has been wonderful.”  

And once Happy Tails adopted telehealth, they didn’t hold back.

The practice also uses Slack, an interoffice communication platform that integrates with third-party telehealth platforms, including GuardianVets. “That has been awesome because Slack is loaded on everyone’s mobile devices, so we can communicate with [all our] telehealth services through them.”

Those other platforms include a texting platform to communicate directly with pet owners, and a teleradiology service.  

Happy Tails is preparing to implement yet another telehealth service that will add virtual rechecks and consults to their toolbox, but Allen says that’s on hold for the moment because he doesn’t want to overwhelm staff as it will involve a steep learning curve at a time when time itself is at a premium.  

He says the new service won’t replace the other telehealth services, but rather, complement them. “It’s another piece of the telehealth puzzle.”  

Allen’s enthusiasm for telehealth might be fervent, but he’s not alone in his appreciation, says telehealth expert Lori Teller, DVM, DABVP.  

An associate professor of telehealth in Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and President-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Teller told NEWSTat, “I think most practices that have embraced telehealth during the pandemic will continue to utilize it at some level.”

“Telehealth is most definitely here to stay,” she adds.

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