If you have a sick or injured animal, you know what to do: take them to the vet. But what if your pet has a minor issue that isn't bad enough to need to go to the vet. There could be a cracked nail, a minor rash, a slight lameness or a gurgly tummy. You'd love to have some informed advice, but you don't really want to go to the bother of putting your pet in the car and driving to the vet, nor do you want to shell out fifty quid. So what can you do?
Currently, the options are limited. You may ask a friend who knows about animals, you may try online discussion forums, or you may Google the problem. But you'll have difficulty if you try to find an online vet to help you.
While the medical profession has taken the leap, allowing online medical video consultations, the veterinary profession has been slower to follow. The only way that you can see a vet and have medicines prescribed is by having a face to face consultation in a "bricks and mortar" clinic.
However it's inevitable that some degree of online veterinary intervention is going to happen in the years ahead: it's the way the world is going. Whether next year, or in a decade, or in thirty years, it's going to happen. And this type of veterinary service will need to be regulated, just as bricks and mortar vets are regulated. The big question that our society should be considering now is this: what services can safely be offered from a distance.
Vets are likely to take a conservative view of what ought to be allowed. In the veterinary world, the most important part of assessing a sick animal is the physical examination. This involves examining the animal carefully, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The mucous membranes of the mouth and eyes are checked, a stethoscope is used to listen to the heart and lungs, the temperature is taken and the abdomen is palpated. Without this detailed examination, a vet could not be said to have carried out a proper consultation. And obviously, a physical examination cannot be carried out online. So if this is used as the sole criterion, it's impossible for vets to carry out online consultations in the same way as doctors. The reason that vets give for this stance is the fact that animals can't talk; this places far more importance on the physical examination compared to human medicine.
Having said this, in the medical world, it's reported that about 70 per cent of GP consultations could actually be carried via telemedicine, online or by phone or video. If vets question themselves genuinely, is there a percentage of vet consultations that could safely be carried out remotely? If not 70%, could it be 30%? Or 10%?
I know, as a vet, that some of my patients would recover if I did nothing at all other than giving simple health care advice to their owners. So surely, logically, some of those cases could be screened out by an initial remote type of discussion so that they no longer need to go to the vet?
Vets worry about opening the door to online veterinary consultations: they are concerned that animal welfare could suffer because the animal cannot be examined properly. So the question is: is it possible to partly open the door? Can some types of consultations be allowed online? Can some medications be prescribed safely after an online discussion? How do you draw lines?
I speak as someone who regularly uses remote consultations as part of my daily work. I am still a vet in practice, but I spend around half my time working in the media - newspaper, radio, tv and online. As part of this, I answer people's queries about pets. I do this with limited information about the animal, and I never pretend to take the place of a real life vet. But I can nearly always offer some type of helpful advice.
People send me detailed information about their pets, often with images and videos. Sometimes I will tell them to go their vet at once. Sometimes I will say go to the vet if it isn't better in 2 days. Sometimes I will suggest simple, safe, home treatments, with the proviso that they should go to their vet if it isn't better in a week. I do this as a pro-bono part of my work in the media. It's what I am expected to do as a "media vet", and I believe that it's a useful service that can genuinely help many animals. As well as people around Ireland, I sometimes get questions from people in far-off places, such as Africa or Pacific Islands, where there is no vet at all.
I don't charge anything for talking to people like this about their pets. But what if I started to charge a fee, and what if I started to write some sort of online prescriptions? This is where it gets complicated. Just because doctors are doing it doesn't mean that vets can necessarily follow suit.
The activities of vets are regulated in every country around the world by formal statutory bodies. In Ireland, that means the Veterinary Council of Ireland, in the UK, it's the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and each country has their own version. These are the bodies that will decide what should be allowed, and this is an issue which is being actively debated right now.
Animal health and welfare needs to be protected, but at the same time, animals and pet owners should be able to benefit from the efficiencies and convenience of online services. It's a tricky balance.