How App-Based Software Helps Patients and Practices

Whether or not your clinic has fully embraced everything that app-based technology has to offer, it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s revolutionizing the way many veterinarians practice. Of course, pandemic-related restrictions ushered in a swell of new users because of the need for telehealth appointments, but these apps offer far more than the ability to video chat.

Higher Engagement and Ease of Communication is a Win-Win for All Involved

D-TS-PetDesk_screen.jpgJennifer Nunnery, DVM, used PetDesk to communicate with Gidget’s owner, Karen Watkins, to discuss Gidget’s allergies and care. Credit: Stephen Shirley, Family Pet Health Photo courtesy of Stephen Shirley, Family Pet Health.

Whether or not your clinic has fully embraced everything that app-based technology has to offer, it’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s revolutionizing the way many veterinarians practice. Of course, pandemic-related restrictions ushered in a swell of new users because of the need for telehealth appointments, but these apps offer far more than the ability to video chat.

From practice management and customer service to allowing doctors to monitor vitals remotely, there is an abundance of apps out there designed to improve the vet med experience—for both the provider and the patient. And they’re being used in more ways than you might realize.

Increasing Engagement So Everybody Wins

Apps like Petriage, PetsApp, TeleVet, Virtuwoof, and more can make communication more efficient for veterinarians, staff, and pet owners alike. Family Pet Health in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for example, utilizes PetDesk in a wide variety of ways. Clients use it to request appointments; fill out patient histories; submit photos, videos, and descriptions of their pet’s issues; and even earn loyalty points. Doctors and staff use it to provide results from blood work, refill prescriptions, conduct telehealth appointments, send automated notifications and reminders, and more. The text-based communications can be viewed through the app and via the pet owner’s text messages and even works with certain practice management software by uploading automatically to patient files.

PetDesk’s vice president of Demand Gen, Kevin O’Leary, said that the app has evolved quite a bit over the last eight years or so. What began as a simple text reminder system has morphed into a comprehensive, highly customizable platform that makes it easy for vets and staff to engage with their clients in various ways.

And that engagement—done the right way—has become even more critical in recent years. Phone calls and postcards are still used by many practices, and while they have their place, “in today’s hyper-connected, digital world, especially with the vast majority of pet owners being millennials, everyone lives on their phones,” O’Leary said.

However, the downside of having so many tech-savvy pet owners means that many of them are turning to “Dr. Google” to try to diagnose their pets, he noted. Or they’re using Yelp reviews to figure out which vet they should see next. Between that and the fact that so many independent clinics were purchased by corporate consolidations during the pandemic, O’Leary said that a lot of autonomy is being taken away from smaller practices. His hope is that with software like PetDesk, those practices can take some of it back.

“Ultimately, what we want to do is to drive more engagement between the trusted resource, which is the vet, and the pet parent,” he said. By making it easier for practices and pet owners to communicate regularly rather than for just a few minutes once or twice a year, vets can build stronger relationships and see a pet all throughout their life. In that scenario, “Everyone wins,” O’Leary said. “The pet goes in [or is seen virtually] for more services throughout its life, so the vet makes more money, the pet is healthy and has a longer life, and the pet parent is happy because they get more years with their pet.”

D-TS-007.jpgKaren Watkins, said that her dog, Gidget, really benefited from app-based communication. Watkins was able to get help with Gidget’s rash, by sending pictures and refilling prescriptions without having to wait for a full visit.

Communicating with Care Without Missing a Beat

Worried that encouraging frequent communication will burden doctors and staff? At Family Pet Health, they’ve found just the opposite to be the case. “Most of our telehealth is asynchronous,” said Michael Shirley, chief empowerment officer, who believes that setting expectations with clients from the start about what services they can provide via the app and what’s included in that fee is a key to their success. A client who’s booked a telehealth appointment, for instance, pays their fee upfront and can then submit a photo, video, and/or description of the issue. Then, the doctors and technicians work in tandem to figure out what’s going on and communicate on the app with the client between their in-person appointments.

“It really facilitates communication throughout the day,” Jennifer Nunnery, DVM, at Family Pet Health said. “Things that aren’t super urgent or pressing, I can do between appointments and be in communication without having to pause for 20 minutes for a phone call,” she noted. “It’s hugely useful in a busy day.”

Making Telehealth Matter

For some of their patients, the ability to conduct appointments via app has been a game-changer. Hospice patients and pets with behavioral issues who are best witnessed in a home setting, for example, benefit enormously from not having to go in so frequently. As a Fear Free Certified clinic, Family Pet Health also keeps track of pets who experience high anxiety or fear in a clinic setting; when a telehealth appointment is an appropriate option for those patients, they’re quick to recommend it.

And then there are patients like Gidget, a French bulldog who, by 12 weeks of age, was already a clinic regular. “She had food and environmental allergies,” Nunnery said. “She came in for all her puppy visits, then for her skin, and then she was having to do some kind of follow-up every couple of weeks.” All of that created a lot of stress for the young pup, not to mention for her owner, Karen Watkins.

Watkins says that using the app for some of the follow-ups made a world of difference. “It allowed me to quickly send questions regarding her care, including photos of her skin issues, to help Dr. Nunnery better diagnose her problems in a very quick time frame,” she said. “It provides a means for me to relay information quickly and to receive instruction [like medication changes or refills] from Dr. Nunnery quickly in response without having to wait for scheduled appointment times that could delay the timeliness of Gidget’s treatment.”

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“The reality is that many pet owners in North America simply do not have the means to take their pet to a vet clinic.”

—YUI SHAPARD, DVM

Impacting Underserved Communities

Yui Shapard, DVM, works as a relief veterinarian in New York City and is the educational director for the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals. As someone who’s worked with clients from underserved communities, she has good reason to hope more practices embrace app-based communication along with telehealth and telemedicine appointments when possible.

“The reality is that many pet owners in North America simply do not have the means to take their pet to a vet clinic,” she said. “Telemedicine can potentially be very impactful for those who struggle to visit a veterinary clinic—whether due to financial reasons, geographical location, language barriers, distrust of medical authorities that are especially seen within the BIPOC community where they are rarely represented, or physical health barriers.”

Because access to care is such an important topic in the veterinary community, she encourages decisionmakers to consider the difference the incorporation of apps could make. “Easier access to care also means a possible decrease in the relinquishment of care,” she said. “I have worked in animal shelters and have come across many animals whose owners are faced with the heartbreaking decision of surrendering their pet to a shelter because they do not have the means to care for them appropriately. What if all it takes for those owners and pets to stay together is easier access to digital care? It’s certainly a question worth pondering for all of us who care about animals and the people who share a special bond with them.”

Serving Specialty Cases

The types of apps mentioned here are popular in veterinary medicine, but they’re far from the only app-based tech being utilized.

Katherine Hogan, DVM, DACVIM, is staff cardiologist at MSPCA-Angell and has two cardiology apps that she uses regularly with her clients—Cardalis and Kardia. “They both allow me to provide different forms of care for patients through owners being able to monitor vital parameters, like breathing rates, heart rates, and ECGs from home,” she said.

After all, she said, most owners want to be proactive when their pet is diagnosed with a chronic illness. “They want to have tangible ways to monitor and help their pet at home before any sort of emergency arises,” she said.

With Cardalis, for example, owners can track their pet’s breathing rate; if the breathing rates become elevated during rest or sleep, indicating that fluid may be building up in the lungs as is consistent with heart failure, they can easily provide that information to Hogan. Then, based on how the pet is doing, she may be able to recommend medication adjustments.

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“From a veterinarian’s perspective, fewer patients via the ER is a good thing! Any time we can make recommendations for at-home treatments, it can greatly help all parties.”

—Katherine Hogan, DVM, DACVIM

“This can allow them to avoid a visit to the ER—which can be stressful to the pet and may lead to multiple days in hospital, along with the financial impact of needing to be seen via ER or be hospitalized,” she said. And while that’s great for the pet and the owner, Hogan said that, with so many clinics being overwhelmed with patient numbers, it’s good for the veterinarians, too. “From a veterinarian’s perspective, fewer patients via the ER is a good thing! Any time we can make recommendations for at-home treatments, it can greatly help all parties.”

She also credits Kardia with making it easier to provide her patients the high level of care they deserve—without unnecessary visits to a clinic. “Owners can obtain an ECG at home via their cell phone rather than having to bring their pet in for a doctor or technician appointment,” she said. Not only does that reduce visits for busy clinics, but it has another serious benefit: “It also can provide more accurate heart rate/rhythm assessments, as pets are typically not as stressed at home compared to when they’re in the clinic or hospital,” Hogan added. “Any amount of stress can elevate the heart rate or exacerbate arrhythmias, which can impact our interpretation of the ECG results at the hospital. At-home ECGs can sometimes provide more accuracy to help guide treatment recommendations.”

However, she’s also quick to stress that, as helpful as any app may be, there are times when a trip to the clinic or the ER will still be necessary. “Obviously if the pet is in any sort of distress, we would recommend urgent or emergent care rather than relying solely on at-home treatment adjustments,” she said.

There’s no question that apps are here to stay in veterinary medicine. And, as clients become more accustomed to using them, which apps a clinic chooses to use—and the services they offer through them—may become more and more important. Several of Family Pet Health’s reviews mention their app by name, and that’s no surprise to Watkins, who now considers it an essential tool for communicating urgent concerns. “If I needed to look for a new vet, I would absolutely consider one that uses an app like PetDesk,” she said. 

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Kristen Seymour is a freelance writer based in Sarasota, Florida. She’s a frequent contributor to many pet-focused publications including HealthyPet Magazine, USA Today’s Pet Guide, Vetstreet.com, DailyPaws.com, Happy Paws, and more.  

 

Photo credits: Photo courtesy of Karen Watkins; AzmanJaka/E+ via Getty Images; krblokhin/iStock via Getty Images

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