10 Trends for Telehealth 2.0: The Next Act in Virtual Care

In the blink of an eye, telehealth version 2.0 is here, and it’s time to look beyond what telehealth has done for us today to imagining what it can continue to do for us tomorrow.

The Internet of Medical Things is an amalgamation of medical devices and applications connecting patients to their care providers through telemedicine apps and an internet connection.

by Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV

The COVID pandemic has spurred innovation of digital health at a crazily accelerated pace. There’s no denying that this surge in adoption of new technologies has been a change agent for veterinary medicine. There’s also no denying that COVID has propelled our profession toward a major shift in the way we deliver care. Telehealth is no longer just a point-solution to current pandemic problems; it is now a practice necessity. And while much of telehealth’s recent growth has been focused on the interplay between in-person and virtual visits, its real future potential lies in connecting longitudinal data and experiences across the entire consumer journey.

In the blink of an eye, telehealth version 2.0 is here, and it’s time to look beyond what telehealth has done for us today to imagining what it can continue to do for us tomorrow. Virtual care is primed and ready for its next act. Here are 10 trends we can expect to see coming soon to the veterinary stage.

1. Evolution of Care Models: A Virtual-First Approach

Client consumers will continue to expect virtual options for the delivery of their pet’s care, including everything from initial consultations to recheck exams. The practice of the future will lean into offering increased ratios of virtual compared with in-person visits to meet clients’ evolving needs and preferences. The next-gen opportunity in veterinary telehealth will be virtual engagement that incorporates high-impact digital touchpoints seamlessly across the continuum of patient and client care. By proactively designing telehealth programs now, clinics can successfully position their organizations to provide integrated, consumer-centric care.

2. Contactless Experiences Are Here to Stay

The pandemic heightened caution with regard to extended exposure to others, leaving veterinary teams needing to quickly pivot the way they delivered care. While practices were essentially forced into a new way of doing things, such as adopting airport-like check-in experiences and exploring new technology-enabled workflows, being thrown in the deep end also provided teams the opportunity to appreciate how leveraging technology could streamline processes for all. Lobby kiosks are now in development to provide everything from completing appointment formalities and delivering telemedicine to fulfilling prescription requests and providing education.

Telehealth solutions are effective on their own, but big data and AI supercharge them.

3. Emergence of Remote Clinical Services

Radiology has already proved to be an effective field for outsourcing via telemedicine. Telehealth offers an opportunity for other areas of specialization—especially those with a shortage of veterinary specialists—to offer remote services. Dermatology, oncology, behavior, and hospice are disciplines ripe for decentralization. There is opportunity for these groups to band together virtually—as a regionally dispersed but medically unified business—to provide consults to veterinarians and clients in regions where access to specialty care is limited. This is not only better for clients and patients, but it allows the potential for greater collaboration with specialists across geographies.

4. Insourcing over Outsourcing

Just as more remote clinical services will begin to emerge, we will also see increased adoption of practice insourcing. COVID has prompted some clinics to outsource telehealth services to help manage an increase in client needs, provider workloads, and after-hours triage. The disadvantages of this approach are that most clients would prefer to speak with “their own” veterinarian and outsourced solutions are generally unfamiliar with hospital protocols. Recognizing this, savvy practices will move toward utilizing internal capacity by creating new virtual care roles for existing staff using agnostic telemedicine solutions. In turn, protocols are preserved, revenue is retained, and exceptional client experience is achieved while improving job satisfaction.

5. The Rise of Decentralized Teams

Much of client communications and many day-to-day tasks do not require a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) or the need to be completed within the confines of a practice’s four walls. Phone calls, triaging, client education, follow ups, lab callbacks, history intakes, and more of a long list of services can all be performed remotely. Experiencing staff shortages? When one considers virtual team members, it allows the casting of a wider net, expanding candidate searches beyond the radius of a 50-mile commute. Our hospice practice has successfully employed a remote team of veterinarians, technicians, and client service representatives for nearly three years.

Although our team is distributed over seven different states, our workflow, and most importantly, the client experience, remains seamless. With so many low-cost or no-cost telehealth tools available, decentralized teams are a realistic option. And, another positive by-product of going virtual? Working from home offers team members an increase in job satisfaction with a decrease in burnout and compassion fatigue. Even for team members who are geographically local to their practice, how many wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to work from home one or two days a week? We all recognize the importance of health and wellness in our profession, and this is one viable solution that can help foster that.

With so many low-cost or no-cost telehealth tools available, decentralized teams are a realistic option.

6. Big Data and AI Will Be a Part of Everything We Do

Telehealth solutions are effective on their own, but big data and AI supercharge them. Although veterinary medicine is in the AI-infancy stages compared with human medicine, companies will continue to develop tools to translate the mass influx of patient data into meaningful medical insights.

The future of telemedicine in veterinary medicine will undoubtedly include advancing technology to collect, process, and analyze a large scope of data automatically, predicting the development of disease as well as providing recommendations on the most suitable treatment plan based on thousands of cases. AI-based veterinary care chatbots and algorithms are already in use, completing tasks as simple as answering client questions about medications and behavior to more complex tasks such as triaging symptoms, providing predictive models to improve speed and accuracy of arriving at a diagnosis, and analyzing genetic codes to advance precision-based medicine.

7. The Internet of Medical Things: Wearables Will Be Commonplace

The Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) is an amalgamation of medical devices and applications connecting patients to their care providers through telemedicine apps and an internet connection. While general awareness of IoMT is increasing, the near future will offer an explosion of newer-generation pet wearables that use AI to interpret the collected data. These cutting-edge technologies will transform patient health by creating new approaches to prevention, early detection, and at-home personalized point-of-care treatment based on continuous monitoring.

Activity trackers are already moving beyond the “simple” task of assessing a pet’s mobility—they are unlocking behaviors that can alert the veterinary team to early signs of illness as well as assess response to therapies. Examples include detection of scratching that can indicate skin allergies, quantifying how frequently a pet is drinking to alert early signs of renal disease or diabetes, uncovering licking behaviors that can indicate joint pain, or picking up on sleep disruptions that can reflect early cognitive changes. Litterboxes can now monitor and track a cat’s body weight. Collars can measure biometric data such as heart and respiratory rate, allowing for targeted interventions during adverse events. When a provider does need to see their patient, either virtually or in person, they now have access to a wealth of longitudinal information to help give a richer picture of what happened since the last visit and allow a more targeted approach to care.

Most of today’s veterinary students have lived their lives in a predominantly digital world, and it is only natural that these veterinarians of tomorrow want to incorporate technology and telehealth into their traditional medical education.

8. Digital Trust Will Become a Must

Along with an increasing adoption of the IoMT and connectivity, digital trust will become essential as veterinary practices receive and exchange increased amounts of client data. Organizations will need to assure clients that their telehealth programs are safe and that their organization is diligently working behind the scenes to protect personal data. As telehealth increasingly becomes part of the everyday norm, clients will need assurances that the private information they share through wearables, mobile apps, virtual visits, and patient portals is protected.

9. Telemedicine Training Will Be Commonplace in the Veterinary Curriculum

Most of today’s veterinary students have lived their lives in a predominantly digital world, and it is only natural that these veterinarians of tomorrow want to incorporate technology and telehealth into their traditional medical education. As such, we will see more and more veterinary schools follow Texas A&M’s lead by adopting telehealth education and experiences into their curriculum. As newly graduated veterinarians begin to practice, their exposure to digital health will help them remain relevant in our ever-evolving practice landscape where the gap between technology and medicine continues to rapidly close.

10. The VCPR Will No Longer Be a Barrier to Care

OK, so a girl can dream. While I am a proponent of the VCPR, I do feel the current language around how the VCPR must be established is antiquated and that state regulations have not kept pace with innovation. The in-person requirement for the VCPR was added to the AVMA’s Model Veterinary Practice Act in 2003 and later revised in 2012 to reflect “personal, technological, and societal changes.”

I don’t think anyone can dispute that a great deal of technical and societal change has taken place over the past 18 years (not to mention the events of this past year alone), and it’s time we revisit outdated legislation to meet the evolving needs of our profession and client demands.

In human medicine, all states allow a physician to establish a relationship with a new patient via telemedicine. Ontario has allowed the establishment of a VCPR through electronic means for three years. The pandemic allowed the opportunity to establish the VCPR through electronic means in many of our states, and one year later, the sky still remains blue and above us. To put it simply, when it comes to how the VCPR is established, state boards need to trust veterinarians to exercise their clinical judgment, to apply their clinical expertise, and to use their common sense. My degree and experience should allow me to make these basic, fundamental care decisions.

Ensuring the Success of Telehealth 2.0

Today’s veterinary industry faces incredible challenges with regard to addressing ever-increasing client expectations, all while lowering costs and providing consistent, high-quality care (not too much to ask of us, right?!). Forward-thinking practices recognize that virtual care can help address these challenges and, with that, support their continued growth and success. Like anything in medicine, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and every organization’s vision for the future of telehealth will be different. What matters most for success is that we continue to move forward and that we never stop defining—and refining—ourselves and our profession.

Telehealth 2.0 isn’t about replacing in-person care—it’s about opening another door that allows for increased access to care, improved patient outcomes through continuity of care, and increased team satisfaction.

Shea Cox
Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV, is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and a prominent leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation, and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine, and as a telehealth supporter, she is advocating for changes in the VCPR.

 

Photo credits: sgursozlu/iStock via Getty Images Plus

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