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First out of the stalls was Vet AI, a company founded in 2017 by Paul Hallett and Robert Dawson MRCVS, which announced last November that it had filed patents for artificial intelligence technology to deploy in giving online consultations through its newly-launched app: Joii.
More recently, a Swedish company called FirstVet has announced the UK launch of a consultation service it has offered in the Scandinavian countries for a few years now.
All three companies charge £20 for an online consultation with a veterinary surgeon.
All of these services are currently limited in what they can offer pet owners here in the UK, because veterinary surgeons are not allowed to prescribe medicines without having physically examined the patient. FirstVet says that in Sweden, similar rules apply, except that under current guidance, antiparasiticides and feline contraceptives can be prescribed remotely.
This means that for the moment at least, online consultations in the UK can only advise pet owners whether they do or do not need to see a veterinary surgeon in person, or recommend OTC treatments, such as flea control.
Personally, I'm not convinced that it's worth £20 for the privilege of asking a vet whether or not my pet needs to see a vet, although to be fair, Joii includes a free symptom checker to differentiate between those cases that need directing to see a vet in person, and those that would benefit from the online consultation. Also, if a case needs to be referred to another vet after a consultation, Joii refunds the consultation fee.
Nevertheless I think I'd just ring my normal practice and ask. But that's just me. Perhaps others will see a value in the immediacy of the online service, or that it entails less commitment.
FirstVet does, however, have another string to its bow. It has been busy forging relationships with insurers to fund the majority of its consultations. The insured owner gets a free consultation subsidised by the insurance company; if the animal requires treatment, the owner is referred to their normal vet, unless they don't have one, in which case the referral is to the nearest practice which can help.
That seems to make all sorts of sense for insured clients. It really adds value to the insurance policy, to be told you'll have access to free, immediate online veterinary consultations. Almost certainly it will mean pet owners seeking veterinary advice sooner than they might otherwise have done. For the insurer, that in turn might mean earlier diagnosis and therefore cheaper treatment. One assumes it also translates into cost-savings for the insurer by dealing with certain queries without needing a trip to the practice.
Still, the really big prize here for remote consultation companies will come if and when the regulations allow remote prescribing. Not necessarily because they'll make a mark up on the sale of prescription drugs, though of course they will, but because suddenly the proposition to the pet owner is that the consultation can, in many cases, offer more convenient and cheaper treatment than if they had to visit a practice in person.
The problem with that, however, is that the £20 remote consultation may carry a greater risk of misdiagnosis. It may mean that the preventative approach to veterinary medicine goes out of the window, at least until remote monitoring technology catches up. There is also a risk that these new limited service providers will take the bread and butter consultations from bricks and mortar practices, consultations that may have been to some degree subsidising care for other patients. These are all the sorts of things that were hotly debated at RCVS Council last November.
Nevertheless, Vet AI is unashamedly pushing for remote prescribing rules to be relaxed. Founder Robert Dawson MRCVS said: "I think that the ease and reduced cost of access to veterinary advice and medicines will have a positive impact on animal welfare. I also think that it will free up vets' time to see the cases they really need to see.
"But in truth, what I think is not the point. The whole debate at the moment is characterised by members of the profession saying what they think will happen as a result of remote prescribing. What we actually need is some evidence. I'd really like to see some movement from the College on this, for a limited number of treatments like parasiticides, before the end of the year."
As Robert says, the debate is characterised by a lack of evidence. But there is, of course, another way that online consultations could really add value to the client/vet relationship without any of these problems, and that is as an adjunct to the service offered by bricks and mortar practices.
Bricks and mortar practices can already prescribe medicines to animals under their care without physically seeing the animal on every occasion. Furthermore, there are a number of situations where a remote consultation could save both the practice and pet owner time and money. For example, post-operative follow-up consultations.
However, none of the existing providers I've spoken to plan to offer a 'white label' solution. So, if I owned a practice, I tell you what, I'd be looking into online consultation software right now. It is already possible, of course, to offer online consultations via things like Skype. But better still would be a system that allowed clients to schedule an online appointment with their normal vet, perhaps slotted in between their face-to-face consultations. As opposed to the existing online providers, you wouldn't need to refund money if a physical consultation was needed, just - perhaps - set it against the later consultation. You could also offer annual plans to include a certain number of online consultations. You could have online triage consultations carried out by veterinary nurses.
There are lots of possibilities. But if you're a bricks and mortar practice, one thing is for sure, the time to look into all this is now. You could do worse than to start here: https://www.vetnurse.co.uk/b/veterinary-nursing-news/archive/2019/01/16/now-all-vet-practices-can-offer-remote-consultations.aspx.
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