How Practices Might Engage In An Expanding Vet Gig Economy

This three-part series by Theresa Entriken briefly explores why and how an emerging drive for on-demand, high-skills talent could apply to the veterinary profession. 

To read more about vet gig economy, read the first part here and second here.

Adapting to an on-demand, task-oriented gig economy opens new possibilities for the veterinary profession to remain competitive. Expanding community leadership and digital technology mindset, along with a few technological upgrades may also be needed in many practices. 

Veterinary telemedicine has been touted to help ease your workload and potentially expand your client base, and it offers one inlet to vet gig work.

From a broader perspective, the digital transformation of the economy allows expanded veterinary outreach and collaboration in pet and public healthcare sectors that will help veterinary professionals retain relevance. 

Expanding Veterinary Telemedicine Services 

Your existing team members can conduct virtual visits, or you can consider hiring on-demand professionals or working with a platform that hires their healthcare providers. Maybe you’ve been hesitant to explore telemedicine because of patient care concerns, fluctuating veterinary regulatory body rules, or pricing questions, or because you’re simply too busy to implement it.

Yet an increasing number of veterinary practices are adopting telemedicine services—especially sparked by the pandemic—to triage patients and otherwise provide patient care to curtail clinic visits. 

According to a December 2020 mHealth Intelligence news article, WhiskerDocs, a pet telehealth company, experienced a 30 percent swell in business related to COVID-19.

In the article, Deb Leon, CEO, and co-founder of WhiskerDocs says that pet owners want on-demand care for their pets, just as they want on-demand care for themselves. And they want to receive their pet’s medications and access their pet’s medical record without physically making a trip to the clinic1.

Similarly, an ABC News report indicated that more veterinarians and pet owners relied on telehealth throughout the pandemic.

In that report, Josh Guttman, co-founder and CEO of Small Door Veterinary, a membership-only veterinary practice in New York City noted a 25% increase in their telemedicine volume, and Allison Boerum, CEO, and co-founder of Virtuwoof, a mobile, and web telemedicine service reported a more than 10-fold increase in activity on their platform2.

Will Telemedicine Expand Access To Veterinary Care? 

Apart from the increased demand for virtual care that occurred in relation to COVID-19—demand that was likely fueled by existing clients—it would be helpful to know whether telemedicine has expanded the veterinary healthcare market by reaching pet owners who do not otherwise routinely access veterinary care.

Thom Jenkins, MA, VetMB, MRCVS, co-founder and CEO of PetsApp Ltd, a mobile veterinary telehealth platform offers insight:

‘We have seen underserved pet owners increase their consumption of veterinary products and services as a result of the increased accessibility of remote access,’ Dr. Jenkins says.

‘Cost isn’t the only factor here. We have seen clinics invite people that they know of as dog owners to join them on PetsApp. We have a screen that asks ‘Is that everybody?’ And often at this point, the pet owner will add a cat that the clinic never knew about. Cat owners often think they are doing the right thing by protecting their cat from the stress of a visit to the veterinarian, so allowing these owners to remotely triage concerns increase the veterinary team’s opportunities to advocate for that patient’s needs.’ 

vet gig economy

Aubrey Kumm, MSc Med (Neuroscience), BVSc, MRCVS, founder and CEO of Guava Ai developed the first algorithm-based recruitment platform specific for the veterinary profession.

He remains cautious about telemedicine’s growth spurt, yet sees room for growth in how practices use telemedicine.

‘The pandemic spurred on a marked increase in the use of remote care in both the human and veterinary medical fields. But that is mainly limited to the English-speaking Global North. The sudden spike will most likely dwindle now as we return to normalcy. The main reason for this dwindling, if I were to hazard a guess, is because the principles of implementation were and are still being ignored.’ 

Dr. Kumm says that during the pandemic, more people had to adopt new technology over a much shorter period:

‘The innovators and early adopters—that cohort of consumers who are always first in line to purchase the latest technology—are very forgiving when trying out new technology. The rest are not. Implementation science informs us that any new technology must be useful, usable, valuable, and acceptable to the end-user. During this pandemic, telemedicine was and probably still is only used for triage. We may have let slip this opportunity to incorporate telemedicine as part of our portfolio of services by identifying all the possible use cases and properly implementing it as such.’

In other words, Dr. Kumm says that if practices haven’t identified more opportunities to use telemedicine and who will use it (useful); which platform works best for the practice (usable); whether it is worth the effort, time and expense (valuable); and whether it is appropriate and ethical (acceptable); then proper implementation is not possible and it is destined to fail.

‘A tonometer is an amazing tool, but, if no one knows what to use it for or, why, when, or how to use it and what to charge for the test, it will lay unused in a drawer. Telemedicine is a tool, too.’

Expanding Veterinary Outreach 

vet gig economy

Expanding a veterinary practice’s market includes mapping and traversing avenues that reach beyond a clinic’s walls.

‘Veterinarians should consider a more integrated and collaborative way of working—with increasingly blurred lines where one ‘organization’ stops and another starts,’ says Dave Nicol, BVMS, Cert. Mgmt, MRCVS, founder of VetX International.

‘Telehealth advice—whether it’s veterinarian-to-client or veterinarian-to-veterinarian—expands a local practice’s market to become national, and opens up a new price category and client accessibility, which in theory can expand the market. Practices can also expand their outreach by digitally connecting with and recommending groomers, dog walkers, and other pet care service providers. The practice then becomes the center of a local pet network. This is more an example of utilizing the digital economy vs. the gig economy.’

‘We’ve seen huge chunks of traditional veterinary practice already carved off and new markets established: vaccination clinics, end-of-life care, house call businesses, WellCare-focused providers. These are ‘one and done’ services where quality matters and convenience is easier because lots of specialized equipment is not needed. Veterinary clinics should collaborate with other pet service providers and set up local networks to support their businesses and think outside the box of their own clinic’s brick-and-mortar setup.’ 

The AVMA’s 2020 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession report supports the approach Dr. Nicol suggests. It states that practice owners should shape their marketing strategies, for example, by using mass communication tools and social media, to highlight their practice’s community leadership and reach more animal healthcare and pet product, consumers.

A ‘Ghost’ Use For An Empty Veterinary Exam Room? 

An additional vet gig economy inlet could stem from a business model on par with that of ‘ghost kitchens.’

These professional kitchen facilities are built solely to rent space to individuals or existing restaurants that want to develop separate, virtual brands without the brick-and-mortar overhead of dining rooms, or simply want to expand the delivery reach of their existing menu. 

Similarly, Dr. Kumm uses the example of a company that leases on-demand, shared office workspaces:

‘Let’s imagine a technology platform that connects veterinary professionals, facilities, and clients. Let’s say a veterinary version of the WeWork model. Veterinary hospitals have space they are not using for some reason. You want to work for yourself and have your clients, without the hassle of owning the premises or equipment.’

‘This could be a completely different play on the IndeVet model I mentioned before (see the second article in this series ‘Why a flexible workforce could work in veterinary practices.’) Letting space rather than hiring people. Co-working or shared space is becoming increasingly popular. Using a bit of creative thinking, a veterinary version is not a far-fetched idea. The next generation veterinarian may ask why such an option is not available yet.’ 

Expanding Veterinary Technology Capabilities 

Veterinarians should be keenly aware that their practice business model has been and will continue to be vulnerable to disruption from external service providers.

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2020 Economic State of the Veterinary Profession report reminds us that ‘New types of competitors such as online retailers, e-pharmacies, and mergers of all types are stepping into the market.3′

Are certain segments of the veterinary practice business model more likely to be carved away next? Dr. Kumm responds:

‘The short and honest answer—everything that does not specifically, by law, require the involvement of a licensed veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse. Delivery and subscription services for medications and therapeutic diets and pet wellness/life stage healthcare plans, telemedicine, and client information webinars can keep clients bonded. Treats, collars, and toys—not so much. We sell our professional time and expertise. Everything else is fair game, I’m afraid.’ 

Matthew J. Salois, MA, Ph.D., Chief Economist at the American Veterinary Medical Association encourages veterinarians to remain open to new ways to deliver veterinary care by accepting and using digital technology.

‘Technological transformation in delivering veterinary care is taking place. Connected care and the ability for clients to share basic vital information about their pets with their veterinarians through the use of wearable technology represents a dramatic shift in how veterinarians will deliver care and deepens notions of what virtual care looks like. Digital technology and evolutions in machine learning and artificial intelligence will support the delivery of veterinary care by automating and reducing errors associated with diagnosis and treatment.’ 

vet gig economy

Dr. Kumm expands on this same topic. ‘Anything that can be done by a machine, deserves to be done by a machine. Enough evidence exists in the human medical field that machines are faster and more accurate in identifying pathology on radiographs, CT and MRI scans, cytology, and histology. Digital radiology and microscopy with built-in reporting and differential diagnoses! I’m not saying radiologists and clinical pathologists are obsolete. However, those specialties will most certainly look very different in a few years from now.’

Veterinarians need to examine whether their existing business model will allow them to deliver healthcare that will thrive with these new technologies—telemedicine, wearable patient monitors, and artificial intelligence. And Dr. Kumm has concerns about how some practices will thrive.

‘How many veterinary practices still don’t use electronic medical records? It’s surprising to see how many practices still use Windows XP and Internet Explorer. Many still use fax machines.’ 

Dr. Kumm adds:

‘The single most unutilized person in veterinary care is the pet owner. Our patients cannot speak and their owners are oftentimes not allowed to speak. Enter the doggy Fitbit-like devices. OKish idea. But hardly any thought was given to implementation. Are these devices useful, usable, and valuable, or acceptable (reliable and accurate)? On all counts, the answer, at least at present, is a resounding no! If you take your dog for a 20-minute walk, it had a 20-minute walk. You don’t need a device for that. It gives no information about the dog’s diet, which, if it’s a bad diet, the dog can’t outrun anyway!’

‘Let’s talk about what good pet health monitors would look like: wearables that are affordable, ubiquitous, unobtrusive, durable, continuously measure clinically useful physiological parameters and alert the pet owner when these change. Veterinarians who roll their eyes when clients mention the word ‘Google’ need to accept and embrace ‘smart clients.’ The ‘Internet of Veterinary Things (IoVT)’, as I like to call it, has immense potential, but we still have a lot of work to do.’ 

The Everlasting Bottom Line In Veterinary Healthcare 

A tenet that seems to withstand the ever-shifting nature of the business of veterinary healthcare: continue to adapt and innovate in the ways that veterinary professionals’ time and expertise can be delivered and purchased—while sustaining optimal healthcare guidance, stellar patient care, and standout client experiences. This will help us continue to thrive within a variety of economic conditions. 

Given the lessons dispensed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worthwhile reiterating, too, that veterinary medicine is a critical component of the public health profession. Human health suffers when human interconnectedness with the health of nonhuman animals and ecosystems is underestimated. Leadership, resilience, entrepreneurship, and technological adaptability will be crucial in veterinary professionals’ preparedness for, detection of, and responses to the next pandemic.

A collaborative, multidisciplinary, and internationally coordinated network of pathogen surveillance, accurate communications, and evidence-based medical care is necessary.

Veterinarians and veterinary nurses/technicians must continue to grow as key experts and educators within this network—in all types of job markets. 

For more business insight on topics such as vet gig economy, join our Veterinary Business Success Group. The Veterinary Business Success group is for business owners looking to stay on top of their game in the veterinary sphere. The group shares resources and tips to help your business flourish- no matter the economy.

To join, click here.

References:

1-‘COVID-19 Pushes Telehealth for Veterinary Care Into the Spotlight.’ 1 Dec. 2020, https://mhealthintelligence.com/news/covid-19-pushes-telehealth-for-veterinary-care-into-the-spotlight. Accessed 26 May. 2021.

2 ‘Telemedicine for pets: How COVID-19 is disrupting animal health ….’ 30 Aug. 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Health/telemedicine-pets-covid-19-disrupting-animal-health-care/story?id=72476104. Accessed 26 May. 2021.

3-‘AVMA’s latest economic report highlights growth, opportunities in ….’ 16 Nov. 2020, https://www.avma.org/news/press-releases/avmas-latest-economic-report-highlights-growth-opportunities-veterinary. Accessed 26 May. 2021.

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