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I’m a Rural Vet. Here’s Why AZ Needs to Expand Access to Veterinary Telemedicine

February 3, 2023

While animal ownership has dramatically increased in recent years, the number of veterinarians in Arizona has not risen to meet demand, making it difficult for pet and livestock owners—especially those in remote areas—to access veterinary care. That’s why Arizona lawmakers should pass Senate Bill 1053, the Veterinary Telemedicine Act, which would allow animal owners in remote areas to access high-quality, virtual care for their pets and livestock without traveling long distances, writes Dr. Audrey J Wystrach:

Growing up on a working cattle ranch in remote southern Arizona, the vast, open landscape and the close relationship with the land and animals instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature and a strong work ethic. It shaped who I am today.

My desire to pursue a career in veterinary medicine was inspired by our ranch’s veterinarian, Dr. James Pickrell. He embodied “James Harriet,” a pioneering veterinarian who had a significant impact on the field of veterinary medicine and was known for his dedication to animal care and his ability to treat animals with compassion and empathy. Dr. Pickrell was a one-person business. He cared for people and animals in Santa Cruz, Cochise, and Pima County, and he was available to advise, coach, and visit local ranches 24/7 and 365 days a year. In the 1980s, this incredible veterinarian recognized the potential of virtual care long before it had a title. Dr. Pickrell practiced telemedicine, teleadvice, and teletriage—he believed in educating pet and livestock owners about their animals’ health and how to care for them properly. He had an incredible personality and depth of knowledge ranging from cattle, sheep, goats, horses, and llamas to cats, dogs, and even the occasional hamster, rabbit, and antelope. He knew that telemedicine could open up access to quality healthcare for animals in remote areas, as well as reduce the cost of care for pet owners, farmers, ranchers, and veterinarians.

Dr. Pickrell was my role model, and I followed in his footsteps. After completing my undergraduate education at the University of Arizona and veterinary school at Colorado State University, I returned to Sonoita, Arizona, to open my first practice. My practice was unique, as it combined brick-and-mortar and mobile veterinary care. I served a large geographic area from Sierra Vista to Nogales and Tucson. My mixed animal practice in remote Southern Arizona had me as the solitary veterinarian in a vast area while I juggled being a business owner, mother of three, and wife. I was available to my clients seven days a week, 365 days a year. It was essential to incorporate virtual care into my practice as a mechanism for pure survival. Telemedicine, teleadvice, and teletriage allowed me to care for a large customer base and manage cases remotely and in person. This method of accessible veterinary care allowed me to provide the best possible care for my clients while balancing the demands of running a business, raising a family, and managing a large customer base.

Throughout my 28-year career as a practicing veterinarian, I can confidently state that telemedicine and telehealth have been a lifesaver for my practice. Virtual care allows me to connect with my customers remotely, using video conferencing and other digital tools. This practice means I can provide consultations, diagnostics, and even treatment to my customers without them having to leave their homes or farms. This proves to be especially useful for large animals, as it can be difficult to transport them long distances for veterinary care. Telemedicine and telehealth are about more than just convenience for my customers, they also allow me to provide better care for my customers’ animals. For example, I can use telemedicine to examine animals remotely and take vital signs, such as temperature, heart rate, and respiration. Virtual diagnoses can provide important information that can help me make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.

The use of telemedicine and telehealth greatly enhances the practice of veterinary medicine. Doctors can provide better care for customers’ animals and make services more accessible to people living in remote areas. Building relationships and providing customer support are essential in practice and especially important in rural communities.

Telemedicine and telehealth have the potential to revolutionize the practice of veterinary medicine in Arizona, but regulatory constraints have hindered the widespread adoption of this practice in the state. As a veterinarian practicing in Arizona and many other states, I have seen firsthand how these constraints have limited the ability of veterinary professionals to provide virtual care to animals. The future of veterinary medicine needs to evaluate and modernize these rules.

One of the main regulatory constraints affecting telemedicine in Arizona is the requirement for a veterinarian to have a valid in-person examination before providing virtual care. This prerequisite means that a veterinarian must physically examine an animal before they can diagnose or treat it remotely. This requirement can be a significant barrier to virtual care, especially in rural areas with limited access to veterinary services.

The veterinary profession in Arizona continues to encounter problems with workforce shortages and access to care. Virtual care, i.e., telemedicine and telehealth, can help support the care of animals in the livestock and small animal sectors. The bridge of virtual care provides improved and enhanced overall veterinary care.

Arizona needs to evaluate and modernize the state’s rules and regulations governing telemedicine practice. This action could include re-evaluating the requirement for a valid in-person examination before providing virtual care. By updating the laws and regulations that govern the practice of telemedicine in Arizona, we can help address the workforce shortage and access to care that the veterinary profession continues to face. These changes can ultimately lead to improved and enhanced overall veterinary care for the animals in our state.

The use of virtual care, also known as telemedicine and telehealth, in the field of veterinary medicine has become increasingly popular in recent years. However, the regulatory implications of providing virtual care in Arizona for veterinary medicine have yet to be fully explored and understood. It is essential to understand the current veterinary industry landscape, including concerns about workforce shortages and access to care, to address the issue at hand.

One of the main reasons for the increasing popularity of virtual care in veterinary medicine is the shortage of veterinarians. Veterinary organizations, including veterinary schools, recognize a significant deficiency of veterinarians in the country, particularly in rural areas. This shortage of veterinarians makes it difficult for pet owners in these areas to access care for their animals.

Virtual care, such as telemedicine and telehealth, can help to bridge this gap by allowing pet owners to access care remotely.

In conclusion, virtual care in veterinary medicine has become increasingly popular in recent years across the globe. The current landscape in the veterinary industry includes concerns about workforce shortages and access to care. To address these issues, it is critical to modernize the regulatory processes for providing virtual care in Arizona for veterinary medicine. This will help ensure that virtual care is delivered safely and effectively and that pet owners can access the care they need for their animals. Virtual care delivery ultimately supports and enhances the veterinary client-patient relationship and allows pet owners to access care remotely. Arizona legislation must adapt to the quickly evolving veterinary landscape to enable veterinarians to honor their commitment to providing the best medicine and accessible care to their patients.

Dr. Audrey J Wystrach DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) is a veterinarian of 28 years with state licenses to practice in Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.



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