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Who isn't getting veterinary care?

By MWI Animal Health

Telemedicine offers a solution to veterinary care deserts



Young people in park with dog

Who isn't getting veterinary care? It's a big issue with no simple answers. In the 2018 report Access to Veterinary Care: Barriers, Current Practices, and Public Policy, the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition warned that limited veterinary care "is a complex societal problem with multiple causes."

Just as food deserts exist in communities without grocery stores, people also live in veterinary care deserts. The Veterinary Care Accessibility Score (VCAS) provides valuable insight into veterinary service accessibility in different communities. It reflects pet owners' ease of access to veterinary care. Calculating the VCAS for each county in the United States relies on the following factors: 

  1. Number of households: This data comes from the U.S. Census and provides information on the number of households in a county.
  2. Number of pets: This data comes from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and provides information on the number of pets in a county. 
  3. Number of veterinary employees: This data comes from the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) and provides information on the number of veterinary employees in a county. 
  4.  Population identified as "speaking English less than well": This data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and the U.S. Census. It provides information on the population in a county that speaks English less than well. 
  5. Individuals without access to a vehicle: This data comes from the CDC SVI and U.S. Census and provides information on the number of individuals in a county who do not have access to a vehicle. 
  6.  Per capita income: This data comes from the CDC SVI and US Census and provides information on the per capita income in a county.
  7. Poverty levels: This data comes from the CDC SVI and U.S. Census and provides information on the poverty levels in a county. 

Understanding who is missing out on care is the first step toward crafting targeted solutions.

Lack of physical or cultural accessibility

In addition to cost, the physical location of clinics — or in many cases, the lack thereof — has a big impact on veterinary care access.
Some veterinary clinics that lack the appropriate resources might pose difficulty for differently abled people. Such resources might include Americans With Disabilities Act requirements and local ordinances like wheelchair ramps and braille signage. Additional accommodations that aren't always as apparent include inclusive communication strategies that improve access for people who experience disability, walk-in hours for people with executive function challenges, and sensory-friendly waiting areas.

Language can also act as a barrier between pet parents and veterinarians. Though language might not explicitly prevent a client from accessing a veterinarian, it can impede the ability to establish a good veterinary-client-patient relationship (VCPR) and limit the communication of important care details. Language problems may prevent or delay client access to care. 

Some clients have other commitments that overlap with standard veterinary workday hours, limiting their access to veterinary care. One common reason for such a time barrier is clients who work jobs with long or unpredictable hours that can make committing to appointments in advance difficult. Veterinarians are no strangers to long workweeks, and such requirements in other occupations can interfere with a client’s ability to access clinics at standard or planned times. 

Clients without means of personal or public transportation have increased difficulty accessing veterinary care. Traditionally, animals that are not service animals or not contained in a carrier can't board public transportation due to policy restrictions. Though some cities are more accommodating than others in this respect, these changes are not universal.

Sometimes, transportation services beyond public transportation are expensive and unreliable (if they're available at all). Additionally, transporting a pet to a veterinary clinic requires the client to leash the pet or safely place them in a carrier. Not every client can safely transport their pet this way for reasons that may include the client’s physical abilities, the pet’s behavior, and the lack of equipment needed. 
Addressing these barriers requires innovative approaches that consider diverse client needs and circumstances.

Telehealth can make a difference

A telemedicine solution can offer an effective way for veterinary practice owners to address staff shortages while keeping their commitment to high-quality pet care. Meeting animal owners where they are improves access to care and their client treatment compliance, engagement, and retention — all while allowing veterinary practices to build connections with convenience. 

One of the most important functions of AllyDVM’s client engagement platform is to improve access to veterinary care. This telehealth solution helps veterinary practices create connections that increase their clients’ treatment compliance while also reducing time and space demands on their teams. By removing an additional barrier to care, we ensure that it’s easier and more convenient than ever for owners to get their animals the care they need.

Telemedicine brings healthcare directly into clients' homes — making veterinary care more accessible and personable than ever. It’s no wonder the demand for telemedicine among pet owners continues to rise. Clients who live in rural areas, and therefore further away from clinics — and clients who work in jobs that make taking time off harder — are just two examples of demographics that might readily use telehealth. In an era when convenience is of high value, telemedicine provides efficient ways for busy pet owners to access healthcare for their pets. It has become more than just a trend — it reflects shifting client expectations that veterinary practices must acknowledge.

Consider the time and stress that may occur when taking a pet to an appointment. Missing work, transporting nervous pets, sitting in traffic, and worrying you'll arrive late. What if pet owners could connect with you remotely? That might influence their decision to pick your practice over a competitor's. And their pets would stay compliant with necessary treatments. Embracing telehealth not only aligns with modern convenience but also signals a shift toward more equitable healthcare access for pets.

It's important to remember that while telehealth can benefit triage, it's not a cure-all. There are instances when the pet will still need to come into the office. Telehealth is best when there is already a relationship between yourself and the pet owner. It should never serve as the first point of contact with a new client.

Staff shortages at clinics compound the issue of access to care. According to research by Mars Veterinary Health, clinics could face a shortage of up to 24,000 companion animal veterinarians by 2030. That doesn't include veterinary technician and client services shortages. The growth in mobile vet clinics could address both accessibility and staffing issues. Veterinarians have the opportunity to try a different professional track. Pets can receive their wellness checks without leaving the home, which is especially ideal for aging cats and dogs.

The Access to Veterinary Care Coalition report concludes with five recommendations for improving access to veterinary care for all socioeconomic groups. 

  1. Understand the barriers people face.
  2. Suspend judgment for those struggling to access and afford animal health services.
  3. Show pet owners patience and grace.
  4. Give pet owners options.
  5. Point them to nearby, reputable help.

Veterinary professionals need to stay proactive about driving the necessary changes to protect the well-being of both animals and society. Telehealth is one solution designed to give pet owners more opportunities to get their pets the healthcare they deserve.


Embrace telehealth

We designed our telehealth services to meet animal owners where they are and offer a more convenient and cost-effective way for pets to receive the healthcare they need