Telehealth Communication Tips

Communicating in a digital environment, especially when discussing sensitive topics like sick pets or client finances, can be difficult and uncomfortable. Here’s a few tips Dr. Jess has learned from providing telehealth over the last several years that result in happier clients, team members, and pets.

1. Provide a warm, empathetic experience- especially when using asynchronous methods of communication. Emotion and context get lost in typed messages, so make sure you are actively ensuring that their emotions are addressed and that you are expressing emotions back. Examples- “I’m sure this is a scary situation for you- I was so scared when my own dog had a broken leg!” or “We are so happy to hear Fido is feeling better- can you send us a photo of him? We’d love to see him living his best life!”. You’ll find higher levels of trust and stronger relationships with this method.

2. History taking is a critical skill. Don’t trust the owner’s interpretation of a symptom! There is a big difference between “My cat is constipated” and “My cat is spending a lot of time in the litterbox.” Ensure you are obtaining the basic information, but also as much objective data as possible. Many pet owners can be easily taught to take heart rates, respiratory rates, capillary refill times, do conscious proprioception and cranial nerve tests, and more with just a little coaching. They can also give you a virtual tour of their home, which can help with a large number of environmental health problems.

3. Use a decision tree for consistent recommendations amongst your practice team members. Have the vets in the practice agree upon what constitutes emergencies, what can wait, what the recommendations for vaccines or spay/neuter age are, and as many other topics as possible. If technicians are providing advice, this is critical so that they can feel comfortable providing DVM-approved advice.

4. Never diagnose or prescribe if no VCPR is present. You can provide advice, education, and other general information. Providing advice to non-clients can actually be a great way to bring that pet into your practice. In an emergency, however, you can provide diagnosis and treatment to help save a pet’s life until they can get into a veterinary clinic, even without a VCPR. For example, advising that a comatose or lethargic puppy receives some high-fructose corn syrup to help keep its blood sugar up until it can get to a clinic is completely fine.

5. If a VCPR is present, then DVMs can diagnose and prescribe if you feel you have enough information and it’s medically appropriate. Not every medical case is appropriate for telemedicine, so don’t make any promises that the case can be fixed through virtual means alone. Many medical cases are best served as a combination of in-person and virtual care.

6. Always provide multiple differentials when providing virtual care. If you see a pitbull puppy with hair missing around it’s eyes and face- it’s a very high likelihood that it’s demodex, but it could also be autoimmune, strangles, fleas, food allergies, or other more complex medical conditions. Don’t paint yourself into a corner!

7. Always provide the next steps. Make sure the pet parent knows what to do if their pet’s condition is worsening, when it’s time to make an in-person appointment or go to emergency, when it’s time to schedule another telemedicine appointment, how to give the medications, etc.

8. Follow up. The ability to provide follow-up is in the definition of the veterinary-client patient relationship, and it’s truly critical to good patient care, good client communication, and limiting liabilities. Have your CSRs or techs check in on your virtual care patients to ensure they are improving. If not, schedule another telemedicine appointment or in-person appointment.

9. Make sure your technology works. You may be the best doctor in the world, but if your internet connection is bad, or your video and microphone don’t work, then your client will likely view you as incompetent.

10. Get those handouts ready. Many pet owners are uncomfortable making a decision about their pet’s health in the moment, especially if a big bill is attached. Virtual care gives us the opportunity to send handouts, weblinks, videos, estimates and more while the visit is happening to help the pet parent feel more comfortable and empowered.