‘Embrace’ remote prescribing or sector at ‘risk’

Vets must be trusted to use their judgment to deliver the most appropriate care for animals, owners and themselves, a telemedicine company has warned.

Vet-Al, which offers virtual services through the Joii Pet Care app, has backed reforms that would relax the current rules on remote prescribing. The comments came as the company claimed a 14% increase in virtual consultations during the first six months of this year.

But the BVA has indicated that it remains opposed to the broader use of remote prescription without a physical relationship between the pet and the animal being in place.

‘Under care’ proposals

The issue is part of “under care” proposals from the RCVS, which some critics argue have the potential to undermine animal welfare and promote improper practice. Professionals have until September 12 to respond to a consultation on the measures, which were supported at a special council meeting last month.

But Joii Pet Care owner Samantha Webster fears the sector is at risk of plunging into a much deeper crisis if it doesn’t embrace change now. She said: “I firmly believe that if we don’t trust members of our profession to use their clinical judgment then that is a much bigger issue than any conversation about remote prescribing.

“We have to be supportive of new technology as an enabler to address the wider issue of growing numbers of pets, owners who have an appetite for remote consultations and a profession that is in huge demand, which is able to empower professionals to use their clinical judgment in a remote capacity – for the benefit of animals and their own well-being.”

Temporary dispensation

A temporary dispensation introduced during the coronavirus pandemic, which allowed for prescription-only medicines to be provided without a physical examination of the animal, was initially withdrawn by the RCVS last November – weeks after the BVA wrote to the college requesting details of the evidence justifying its continued use.

But the measures were reinstated in December amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron variant. Normal prescription rules, which only allow for remote prescription when an animal is already under the vet’s care, subsequently resumed in mid-March.

The revised guidance proposed by the RCVS says the question of whether a physical examination is necessary or not should be a matter of judgment for the individual.

But it says a physical examination should take place “in all but exceptional circumstances” when either prescribing controlled drugs to an animal for the first time or prescribing antimicrobials, and vets should “be prepared to justify” their decision not to examine the animal and record that explanation in the clinical notes.

The college also said it recognizes the current regulations are both impractical in certain situations, such as locums issuing a repeat prescription, and do not account for improved communications through video call platforms.

Dr Webster said: “The RCVS’ proposed new legislative changes to allow remote prescribing are very well thought out and structured to limit the most common concerns, such as the overuse of antimicrobials. We are very supportive of this review, and encourage the profession and the wider public to respond to the RCVS proposals.”

Position unchanged

But BVA junior vice-president Malcolm Morley said his organization’s view of the issue had not changed. He said: “The consultation is still live and we will be responding in line with our position that remote prescribing should only be available when a physical self-client-patient relationship has been established.

“Once in place, remote veterinary service provision can be given where deemed appropriate. We believe this would best support animal health and welfare, clients and veterinary practices.”

Joii said 250,000 pets are now registered on its app, and chief operating officer Matt Elcock believes remote options could be the difference between animals receiving care and not in some cases – particularly as the cost of living crisis continues to bite.

Inflation is already at a 40-year high of 9.4%, although the Bank of England forecasted it will peak at 13.3% in October as it imposed a new half-point rise in interest rates to 1.75%. The bank has also warned of an impending recession, which it fears could be as severe as the downturn of the early 1990s and last for as long as the financial crisis of the late 2000s.

Mr Elcock said: “It is really important pet owners have a range of convenient and affordable choices to access pet care, and ensure that animals are accessing the treatment they need.

“Unfortunately, some owners are avoiding vets when it’s too expensive or requires a car journey. That’s where we come in. The pet industry needs to offer both digital and in-person options for the future of pet health and welfare.”

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