Telemedicine options and modernization of rules could help better service rural areas.
Telemedicine technology could improve access to veterinary care in Ontario’s remote and underserviced areas.
The shortage of veterinarians, particularly large animal specialists, is no secret. Tack on pandemic pressures, burnout and retirement, and the sector’s ability to meet demand is stressed further.
“The current model of providing veterinary service to farms cannot keep up with the demand,” said Dr. Glen Yates, co-founder of VETSon, a remote service platform for veterinarians.
“Because of the shortage of veterinarians, most practices can only provide service to large farms. As a result, many small farms are often left with no animal health options.”
Why it matters: Veterinary shortages have created service gaps in rural and remote areas of the province.
After four decades running Yates Veterinary Hospital, a successful Woodstock-area mixed-animal practice specializing in dairy herd health, Yates sold his practice to another large animal veterinarian.
He realized service to his small farm and hobby farm clients wouldn’t be maintained, so instead of retirement, he invested his expertise in creating a platform to help farmers find health care for their livestock.
“VETSon is working to solve this crisis by putting innovative tools and technology in the hands of livestock veterinarians,” said Yates. “These tools can help them support more farms, without veterinarian burnout and compromised revenue, and support farmers with economical service.”
Telemedicine standards changed
Since 2016, the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) has held a standard on telemedicine, but emergency provisions were put in place to manage veterinary access during the pandemic.
Earlier this year, the College revised the telemedicine policy to reflect increased use of technology and ensure the sector maintained safeguards related to emergency care and management of adverse reactions.
Veterinarians who offer telemedical services in Ontario must be licensed with a registered practice and follow drug prescription regulations and professional standards in the same fashion as other practitioners.
“Telemedicine is, and will continue to be, one method that veterinarians can extend their reach in under-served areas,” said Jan Robinson, CVO registrar and CEO.
Yates believes technology will make veterinary services accessible and equitable for farms of all sizes and types.
He said there isn’t a single livestock veterinarian servicing Haliburton, and approximately seven veterinarians cover central Ontario and into Northern Ontario.
While VETSon doesn’t fill the need for emergency care, it can provide guidance and animal health care via video consultation.
Veterinarians and their clients sign up for the service platform on a monthly or pay-as-you-go plan. Veterinarians can then perform video consultations, order medications to be shipped to the farm and maintain a client-patient relationship. In addition, VETSon is designing a point-of-care suite of diagnostic tests so farmers can make some diagnoses independently, without a veterinarian on site.
“It allows you to serve a lot more clients depending on the size of the farm and their various needs,” said Yates. “But for a small farm that only needs a visit once per year and medications every once in a while, it allows you to serve them completely virtually.”
Yates consulted with seasoned and newly graduated veterinarians and clients to ensure the AI platform met their criteria and the CVO’s regulatory requirements.
He noted graduates weren’t all interested in the 24-7 on-call lifestyle considered standard in the industry. Instead, they’re looking for a better work-life balance, and VETSon can help provide that.
“We can look after more clientele without driving the distances and without the burnout,” he said. “You can book consultations and have (them) recorded for the benefit of the veterinarian and the farmer and store those records, so everything is at their fingertips.”
VETSon is being tested with customers in southern and northern regions of the province and is available for free download via the Apple App Store and Google Play or directly from the VETSon website at vetson.ca.
Dr. Rob Swackhammer, a veterinarian and owner of Upper Grand Veterinary Services, said he sees the benefit of apps like VETSon for smaller operations that struggle to get the attention of a busy veterinarian who has large commercial clients.
“It’s not just getting their attention, but the cost per animal is relatively higher, too,” Swackhammer said. “So maybe this is a more economical way for them to receive secondary advice, provided it’s not something that requires (a veterinarian) to be there.”
He said AI technology works when it comes to preventive and non-urgent care but he is concerned about the gap in services for urgent animal health needs.
Swackhammer has applied for a grant to develop a telehealth business to address this gap in food animal medicine where a producer’s livelihood is farm-dependent.
His model employs virtual care for non-emergencies but partners with local veterinarians, even those at a considerable distance from the client, to deal with on-farm emergencies requiring a hands-on response.
“I’m trying to make that a more viable business for them so they can generate more income and use it in the local economy,” he said.
Swackhammer suggested universities could consider providing weighted marks for veterinary school applicants that have on-farm experience with livestock.
“You’ve got to have a 90 per cent average to get in (to veterinary college), but lots of farm kids are busy working. They don’t have that average,” he said.
“They would make fantastic veterinarians. They just can’t clear that first hurdle, so perhaps a separate application stream with restrictions for food animal production medicine could work.”