Animal Health Matters: Connecting with veterinarians in the telemedicine age

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

One of the most fundamental aspects of rural practice burned into my brain as a new veterinarian was accessibility to your clients — particularly when you were on call after hours. Assisting this connectivity was the most advanced technology available at the time: the clinic telephone answering machine that gave out our home phone number.

That system worked OK, but it worked better for my married colleagues than it did for this young single guy. If a second call came in while the vet was attending to another emergency, no problem: the vet’s wife (yes, we were all male back then) would answer the phone and relay the message over the two-way radio installed in the family kitchen. This saved a lot of time and miles.

I didn’t have a human phone answerer at home in those days, so when I was done with an after-hours call in the country, I’d borrow the farmer’s phone or find a pay phone (museum pieces now!) to call my own answering machine and hear where the next emergency would take me. If the only phone available was a rotary dial phone, I used a little hand-held device to mimic the touch tones that activated my answering machine. Many were the times I’d get the “all clear” from my answering machine, drive half an hour home to find a new message from a farm just down the road from the last place I was at.

Any veterinarian who’s graduated from vet school over the past 25 years has no idea about those gyrations we made just to keep connected to our clients. Veterinarians — and their clients — now take the immediate communication enabled by cell phones for granted. That simple advancement made large animal veterinarians more efficient than ever — and more connected to their clients and the animals in their care.

Smartphones were the next advancement in veterinary communications. Now, instead of verbally describing that weird lump on the side of a cow to their veterinarian over the phone, a cattle producer can now instantaneously send a picture of that weird lump. As they say, a picture (or video) is worth a thousand words. That extra information helps the vet decide between an emergency situation or something that can wait. Even though smartphones came on the scene after I switched from clinical practice to the university world, I frequently get pictures from family members and students asking my opinion on what’s going on with their animal. It can definitely help the diagnostic process!

With benefits to the animal, the animal owner and the veterinarian, such communication (“telemedicine” is a term that applies) might seem to have no downside. However, I’d encourage animal owners to look at things from the veterinarian’s point of view.

First off, mainly because our patients can’t tell us what they’re experiencing or what happened to them, veterinarians learn to use all their senses when diagnosing animal issues. There really is no substitute for the veterinarian feeling that lump, hearing the fluid slosh around inside it, smelling (!) the junk coming out of it. There’s also no substitute for examining the animal’s environment for possible root causes — that hazardous board sticking out of the barn, for example. Therefore, animal owners shouldn’t be perturbed when their vets want to actually examine the animal and its surroundings instead of giving a less-certain answer based on a texted photo.

In large animal medicine, it’s that understanding of the animal’s care and environment that can make all the difference in diagnosing and initiating care. Telemedicine is therefore much more effective when the veterinarian already has knowledge of your operation and management. In other words, establish a real-world relationship with a veterinarian before pinging their cell phone with questions and pictures. Most veterinary telemedicine guidelines spell this out — the veterinary/client/patient relationship needs to be established in person first.

Finally, respect any boundaries your veterinarian develops around texted pictures, videos and messages. Check with them first about how they’d like you to communicate with them, particularly when they’re not on call. Although most don’t, it’s not unreasonable for a vet to consider charging for such services. Even if a vet isn’t physically with the animal, they’re still practicing veterinary medicine when they respond to your texts. That’s worthy of your respect for their time.