Marketing Connected Care: Get Clients On Board Now to Keep Them Coming Back
by Constance Hardesty, MSc
At the beginning of this year, many pet owners may have been unaware of the terms virtual care, telehealth, or connected care. But due to the global coronavirus pandemic, they certainly are aware of these services now.
That’s significant, because while telemedicine is being widely adopted in the human healthcare model, it’s been slower to catch on in the veterinary world because of difficulty of negotiating the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), which mandates that veterinarians can’t diagnose or prescribe via electronic means unless they’ve previously seen the patient in the flesh.
Like many other things, that’s changed because of the pandemic and the FDA’s decision in March to temporarily ease restrictions on veterinarians’ use of telemedicine so they can more easily treat pets during the coronavirus pandemic.
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 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 VCPR, allowing veterinarians to prescribe medications based on a video examination.
That latitude gives veterinary hospitals another way to keep their doors open during the pandemic. But it also means that veterinarians need to get up to speed on telemedicine, and the tools available to help them practice it, fast.
Although telehealth and virtual care are now on clients’ radar, and in the veterinarian’s toolbox, the key is to get clients to actually take advantage of these services and allow practices to care for their pets in this “new normal.” So, when it comes to connected care, getting clients on board comes down to one word: marketing.
Bill Schroeder, senior vice president of InTouch Practice Communications, added that your messages need to focus not on what you offer but why and how you provide value to clients.
“Telehealth should not be positioned as a service but a more modern, efficient way to deliver the practice’s services,” Schroeder said.
The terminology may also be confusing, even with many practices offering virtual care. “People don’t automatically get what you mean when you say telehealth,” said Kelly Baltzell, CEO of Beyond Indigo Pets.
Veterinary teams can change that. Take wellness visits and wellness plans. Ten years ago, they were the hot new thing. Today, they’re mainstream. Why? Because veterinary teams across the country, from national chains to individual hospitals, gave clients a consistent and effective message time and again. In other words, marketing.
Now is the perfect time to ramp up the marketing of these services. Right now, people have almost no other choice but to have their pet seen virtually, or at least in a very hands-off way. But once the pandemic ends and in-practice visits become normal again, there will be an opportunity to keep these services going.
“Marketing for any new offering needs to be educational and consistent,” Baltzell advised.
“Telemedicine can be a value proposition that allows a practice the opportunity to demonstrate its focus on modern communication, availability, and responsiveness,” Schroeder explained. “When positioned properly, it can be a differentiating factor that pet owners can use when evaluating veterinary services within their market.”
Practices that want to improve client adoption of virtual care should plan for the long haul.
“The message should be conveyed consistently on all platforms for months at a time,” according to Baltzell. “People need to see a new service multiple times on multiple channels on multiple devices. They need to see it more than you think they do. Think major brands that embrace a concept for the long haul, like Coke, Pepsi, or McDonald’s. The brand and the message are the same everywhere they are seen.
“Adoption takes time,” Baltzell said. “It takes time for Google to embrace it and show it to pet owners, and it takes time for clients to understand what you’re offering and the value it can bring to their pets’ health. Think a year or two for current and future clients to really grasp this. Be ready to discuss it in person and online to the point where you really are tired discussing it.”
Get a head start on your marketing by meeting clients where they already are. A good place to start is with their own medical experience.
“People already know and understand human health. If they can have a digital consult service with a human doctor about their needs, that is what they are going to expect when it comes to their [pet],” Baltzell said.
Marketing that focuses on how virtual care can enhance a client’s overall experience of veterinary care can be highly effective. It’s all about the intangibles that surround the essentials of diagnosis and treatment.
For that reason, Schroeder encourages practices to think beyond virtual care as a commodity, product, or service for sale.
“I do not think that showcasing the variety of services is as necessary as simply telling the story of why the practice has invested in the service and the outcomes it has provided,” he said.
“Most pet owners do not know the difference between good and bad veterinary medicine. Instead, they tend to wrap their arms around things that they can understand,” Schroeder pointed out. “Technology, customer service, convenience, and connectivity—telehealth can boost each of these categories.
“Tell stories of success using videos and actual comments from pet owners that support the overall mission of telehealth and position the practice as being technologically advanced.”
Client stories make your marketing messages true to your practice. That’s important, because telehealth, or connected care, is an umbrella term, and it can be all things to all people.
So, besides being consistent, long term, and value driven, your messages also need to be specific to what your practice offers. “Marketing should give your current and future clients a solid grasp of what a telehealth consult is for your practice,” Baltzell said.
Shaping clients’ expectations in that way will prevent false hopes and disappointment.
In the “experience economy,” client satisfaction depends on the quality of personal experience, as well as on medical outcome. Think of virtual care and in-practice visits as two sides of the same coin. Clients who have had a good encounter with telemedicine will choose the virtual care experience along with traditional, in-practice experience.
“I believe that one of the most important components in this process is to educate pet owners about the availability and convenience that telemedicine provides,” Schroeder said. “By setting and communicating clear expectations, practices can make certain that pet owners are satisfied.”
Constance Hardesty, MSc, is an award-winning veterinary journalist specializing in trends, technology, and business management.
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