In a news release on March 24, 2020 the FDA announced that “it intends to temporarily not enforce certain requirements in order to allow veterinarians to better utilize telemedicine to address animal health needs during the pandemic.” Learn more about this positive development and how it might affect pet parents below.
News Update from Dr. V:
I think it was maybe four years ago when I started asking my colleagues if we could start talking about veterinary telemedicine. The answer was a near-unanimous “no!” I lectured to empty rooms about this topic I’m passionate about and wrote articles no one understood.
Sure, maybe a few veterinarians here and there showed some interest in a telemedicine app, but the chances are pretty low that it’s something you’ve used with your vet. Well, that’s all about to change.
Until COVID-19 shut down entire states and even countries in a matter of weeks, we’ve always assumed that if your pet had a problem, you would take them to the veterinarian. As a profession we are very married to the idea that unless you have your hands on the pet, you won’t get a complete picture of what’s going on and wouldn’t be doing right by the pet.
What is a VCPR?
Legally, a hands-on examination has always been required for us to create what’s called a VCPR- a valid client patient relationship. Without this VCPR, a veterinarian cannot diagnose or prescribe medication to your pet. While each state defines this VCPR, they’ve all been pretty consistent in requiring this.
Let’s pause here for a moment because the next thing I’m about to say is super important.
Once you establish that VCPR with a veterinarian, it is good for a specific amount of time- usually a year. During that period of time, in almost every state, your veterinarian can do telemedicine visits with you, including follow ups and prescribing medication. I’m not saying they will do it, but they could from a legal perspective — and that’s been the case for quite a long time, actually.
What people are talking about right now is that the FDA has temporarily removed the requirement for the veterinarian to be in the same location to establish a VCPR. In this case, you could have a telemedicine visit with a veterinarian you’ve never met, and they could make a diagnosis and prescribe a medication without ever seeing you. It happens all the time in human medicine, but those laws are very different.
So does that mean when you get up tomorrow you can google “online vet” and get some heartworm pills for your dog with a remote visit? Probably not. Here’s why:
The FDA is a federal organization. But the rules surrounding the practice of medicine are determined by the state. In this case the state laws take precedence. In only a handful of states, such as California, they have made an emergency exemption where a California veterinarian can establish a remote VCPR with a California client. I can’t tell you what other states this is happening in, because the laws are changing quite literally daily. It’s astounding.
But to get back to what I said earlier, even if you can’t establish a relationship with a new vet online, you’ve likely already been able to conduct a telemedicine visit with your current one. It’s just that very few were willing to do it. That’s what’s changing.
How is COVID-19 going to affect you as a pet parent?
You may be asked to do drive-up medicine. Although you’ve probably heard that two dogs did test positive for COVID-19 in their system, there is no evidence they get sick from it or can infect others. The health precautions we are taking have to do with keeping both you and the veterinary staff safe, and that means practicing social distancing. Many clinics are asking clients to remain in their cars or limit the number of people in the exam room to one. We don’t like it either, but it keeps us safer.
You may be asked to postpone wellness care. Again, it’s to keep us all safe. In addition, many veterinarians are donating as many masks and gloves as they can to help the doctors and nurses keeping us safe in the hospitals. This is a community effort.
You may find your vet is suddenly offering telemedicine. I’m biased, but I think this is great. It’s important to note that telemedicine is only useful in some situations. An emergency will always require a visit to the ER. Pets will still need surgeries and bloodwork and x-rays and get hurt, and we’re doing all we can to stay open and be there for you when you need us.
So when are veterinarians using telemedicine?
Most of the time, it’s for things like follow up visits, skin issues like hot spots, recurring ear infections, mild limping, “is this normal” questions, prescription refill requests, flea and tick medications, and general advice. It’s a limited list, but it covers a lot of ground. Again, every veterinarian is allowed to decide for herself if and when they want to offer telemedicine, so there’s no requirement that they do.
I may be biased, but I hope they all decide to do so! If they’re not offering telemedicine services, it never hurts to ask if they will consider it. It can get put into place very quickly. In fact, I’ve spent the last two weeks working behind the scenes with my colleagues to pull together resources to help those in the profession get onboarded with telemedicine as quickly as possible- so if you see my name out there, say hi!
I do this because I believe in helping pet owners in any way I can, and this is my way of serving the community in time of crisis.
Thinking of you all and hoping you remain safe and well,
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM