Are phones smarter than our approach to care?

Mark Cushing, JD

Mark Cushing is the Founder and CEO of the Animal Policy Group and chair of the Veterinary Virtual Care Association Advisory Council. His book Pet Nation: The Love Affair That Changed America tells the story of the economic, legal, political and social dramas springing from this cultural transformation. Cushing is a long-time political strategist, government regulatory advisor and corporate executive who has specialized in animal health issues since 2004. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Lincoln Memorial, Lewis and Clark, and University of Oregon law schools, and he serves as trustees counsel at Lincoln Memorial University.

Interacting with our pets is more than just fun. It creates a bond scientifically proven to increase oxytocin and decrease cortisol, which leads to great joy and less anxiety. This human-animal bond has moved pets from a sideshow relationship to center stage in our lives. Americans have built an entire culture around pets and want all the benefits of technology to enjoy it.

Technology has prompted pet owners, especially millennials, to say, "Why can't I handle some of the care of my pet using the smartphone-driven tools I use in every other facet of my life?" I don't know a single pet owner who doesn't value the convenience of technology and smartphones.

I used to say that when you got to the letter "P" for pets in the alphabet you may as well turn off your smartphone. The industry gave no thought to the convenience pet owners wanted in working with a veterinarian. The veterinary care model taught in veterinary schools in the 70s, 80s, 90s and the first decade of the 21st century was veterinary-centric. It said to pet owners, "This is how we do it and where we do it. We'll decide, thank you. Just hand us your pet and we'll get back to you."

My way or the (information super) highway

Technology ran headlong into the wall of veterinary medicine. There are still practitioners and players in the industry who stand behind that wall and say technology isn't welcome here. But millennials and Gen Z now own about 60 percent of America's pets, and they want their pets to have exactly the same healthcare services they have for themselves or their children.

If you think about it, people access information about their own health daily, whether they want to or not. They're confronted with it. Technology helps people get educated about topics only doctors used to know, like how foods and behaviors and environments affect our health. No one said, "Damn, I don't want to know that." Instead, people want more information that's even more accessible, timely and easy to understand.

This is shaping pet healthcare into a pet-parent-centric model driven by convenience and education. But sometimes the main player—the veterinarian—still watches warily from the sideline. There's an old guard in the profession who don't like technology and believe their income is threatened by telemedicine. This resistance is akin to someone in the early 20th century saying, "I'm not getting in one of those automobiles. My horse will take me where I need to go."

"We need to stop scaring the hell out of people with the idea that telemedicine is dangerous."

Modernizing the VCPR

Unfortunately, the AVMA has planted a flag saying the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) cannot be established by telemedicine. Pet owners absolutely must bring their pet into the clinic before a veterinarian can care for it via telemedicine. This says to pet owners that if you don't get veterinary care on our terms, something bad is going to happen. We need to stop scaring the hell out of people with the idea that telemedicine is dangerous. There is no evidence of such dangers.

When pet owners are confronted with a veterinary model that's entirely on the clinic's terms—our clinic, our location, our hours—they start looking for a different option. Not because they don't love their dogs, but because they value their time. They've learned the world can meet them on their terms. Except, apparently, veterinarians can't.

The VCPR should be a front door inviting people into the pet healthcare system, not a wall they have to climb to earn the privilege of being seen. It should say, "Let's talk about your pet. I don't care that you're 1,000 miles away and on a screen. We can still have a conversation and I can be helpful to you. If I need to see your pet, I'll tell you." If veterinarians tell pet owners that they need to bring their pets in for a physical visit after a telemedicine call, you can bet they'll do it, because the veterinarian has been accommodating and trustworthy. I've never heard a good rebuttal to why this dynamic isn't the way veterinary medicine should operate.

"When pet owners are confronted with a veterinary model that's entirely on the clinic's terms—our clinic, our location, our hours—they start looking for a different option. Not because they don't love their dogs, but because they value their time."

The proof is in the pet care

Consider the evidence. The Veterinary Virtual Care Association reached out to every state veterinary board that loosened or opened the VCPR rules during COVID, and not a single complaint has been filed with any of them saying a pet was harmed by telemedicine. In this evidenced-based profession of doctors and scientists, there's no evidence of harm from telemedicine.

Also, let's remember that good veterinarians don't turn into bad veterinarians overnight. Think of it this way. On Tuesday, Dr. Judy is a good veterinarian who cares about pets and is disciplined, conscientious and current on the literature. On Wednesday, she starts using telemedicine with her clients. Does she suddenly give up her morals, training and professional ethics? Does she throw out all standards and protocols? Hell no. So why are we having this silly debate over whether telemedicine is good or bad?

If pet owners encounter resistance from a veterinarian more than once, they won't hesitate to seek advice elsewhere. Remember, people's primary goal (absent an emergency) is to get advice on how to best take care of their pets. So let's embrace technology and merge it into the ways veterinarians already help people care for pets.

Going viral: Pets and the pet economy

COVID has sped up pet owners' demands for technology-based care. It has also reinforced the human-animal bond. With the exception of boarding, every corner of the pet economy took off in 2020—including veterinary practice.

If COVID is the gasoline that fueled the pet economy, technology is the engine. In my book Pet Nation, I make the point that smartphones have made people their own film producers, and now pet videos have replaced kid videos. The Facebook post people want to see isn't their friend's brand-new baby—sorry. They want to see what someone's 3-month-old puppy did today. Technology has allowed people living in Maine to engage with people in California who have the same breed of dog. Pets have become a kind of social glue.

Pets help people stick together

Dogs and cats won't solve all of our problems, but they do create a common bond among people that has no regard for money, where someone went to school, how big their house is or what kind of car they drive. People just want to talk with each other about their pets. If we talked about our kids the same way, we'd be bragging. But when we talk about our dog—when we share something our dog did that's cool, fun, warm, humorous or silly—people just laugh. It lowers the tension.

Pets make individuals and groups feel better and they make communities work better. Bar K, a restaurant-bar-dog park in Kansas City, is a great community gathering place. If it were just TV and beer and a place to watch the Kansas City Chiefs, it ain't happening. There are lots of places to do that, including your own home. At Bar K, it's about bringing your dog, coming on in and connecting. Nobody leaves Bar K having only talked to the person they came with. There's no chance. I don't care how big of an introvert you are, it just forces you into engagement.

And that's the continual elevation of the human animal bond. It's welcoming people into this little secret society that's not so secret anymore.

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