CEO of Vidaah, Gilberto Gandra, and Medical Director of The Anti-Cruelty Society, Dr. Emily Swiniarski discuss how her shelter medicine team used Vidaah chat consults to help veterinarians and foster volunteers sleep better, as well as her thoughts on the future of veterinary telehealth.
Over the last decade, Dr. Emily Swiniarski has led Shelter Medicine teams in multiple organizations including PAWS Chicago, Treehouse Humane Society and Washington Humane Society, and currently serves as the Medical Director at Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society. Dr. Swiniarski earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University and did her Shelter Medicine internship at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
How did you and your shelter medicine team deal with medical questions before using Vidaah?
We had an on-call phone after-hours for foster volunteers to call in case of emergency, we also gave foster volunteers detailed literature on what constitutes an emergency but we still got a lot of calls that were more routine things or medical concerns that could have waited until the next day.
Vidaah alleviated a lot of stress on our veterinarians to have this resource for the foster volunteers and also alleviated a lot of stress on the foster volunteers because they didn’t have to wait for us to call them back. They got an instant answer and they are using it on their smartphones and they are loving it.
Share a bit more about how that process was in terms of the “call back” process you have?
Originally, the foster volunteer would call the phone and leave a voice mail, and if this was deemed an emergency that would get escalated to a veterinarian and they would call the volunteer back. Eventually, we cut out the “middleman” by giving the phone directly to veterinarians, because they were getting called by foster staff anyways.
How did this change after your team started using Vidaah?
The foster volunteers now would directly ask all their after-hour and overnight potentially emergent scenarios to Vidaah; which meant that our veterinarians and technicians did not have to pick up the phone on calls from foster volunteers and that was great because it decreased the work load and any potential stress or even interruption of sleep. On the flipside, the foster volunteers, accessed Vidaah very easily from their phone and they got an immediate response; and they actually had a higher satisfaction rate with this service than they did with calling a phone waiting, leaving a message, and waiting for a call back because they got instantly through to someone who was a veterinarian.
Then we took it one step further and told foster volunteers that if Vidaah tells you it’s an emergency and it cannot wait, here is a list of emergency hospitals our shelter partners with so just go to whichever one is closest. We also said: “if Vidaah said it can wait till morning, they could call the foster program during regular hours and they would decide if it needs meds or no treatment at all or whatever. We just basically relied on the veterinarians at Vidaah to tell the foster how urgent the situation was and then the foster could follow up with us regardless.
Foster Program Staff did actually review the transcripts each morning which helped ensure that when the foster volunteers were contacting Vidaah after hours the shelter team could reach out with context of what happened and see how they were doing or if they needed a follow-up visit. I think it also improved the customer service too because it was a resource for our foster staff to know what was happening and proactively reach out to them.
How do you know if Vidaah had a positive impact on customer service with fosters?
We checked with foster volunteers that used the service as well as sent them an email two weeks after we implemented Vidaah. Also, the word of mouth from foster volunteers mentioning their positive experience and enjoying that they could just go on their phone and type instead of phone calls which people are leaning less and less towards calls these days.
What do you see the role of fosters is in the current state of animal sheltering today?
Well animal shelters would definitely run out of space in the shelter to care for animals who need it, if we didn’t have fosters. Also, there are many medical and behavior issues that I cannot fix inside of a shelter because of stress or because of the amount of intensive care that the animal requires. So without fosters we would not be even close to half as much life-saving as we’re able to accomplish and of course Paws Chicago has a very robust foster program. I think every shelter I’ve ever worked in or consulted with has said that when their foster program was weak, they had issues with saving lives. But when their foster program was robust, they had a much higher ability to care for animals and treat conditions that were a little more advanced than your typical skin infection or Upper respiratory infection.
What do you see the role of veterinary telehealth in the veterinary medicine of pet parents and beyond?
I think telehealth is an essential future component of veterinary medicine. I think it has its place just like every branch of veterinary medicine that is new and it doesn’t take away from the other aspects of veterinary medicine. In fact, it just targets another audience that struggled to get veterinary care. We have an issue with our society being electronic heavy, and telehealth cant do everything but there is a lot of pet parents who would benefit from a quick telehealth check or a lot of veterinarians who are burn out on regular general practice (and we are desperate to keep our vets) that would be willing to step into a field like that. And then you are meeting the needs of the public who needs to find veterinary care but they are not doing it because they have to work, or they can’t make an the appointment that wouldn’t have gotten veterinary care in a timely fashion anyway.
I think the biggest hurdle is that veterinarians don’t feel really supported to do this. I think it comes with a mix of our interpretation of what is an appropriate Veterinary Client Patient Relationship and the law is not fully supportive of veterinarians regardless of what the human medicine is doing, there is always that grey zone that doesn’t really cover us.
What are some of the advantages you can see coming from Veterinary Telehealth?
I think Veterinary Telehealth has some benefits and drawbacks. Most people call the vet when something is wrong, they can’t get in for a while or maybe the symptoms go away and then they give up. What we find is that most animals with chronic conditions have had symptoms for months that were subtle or that were waxing and waning and they didn’t have a visit with the vet not because they didn’t care but because they don’t know or didn’t recognize the symptoms. One of the things I always teach when working with veterinary students is that we are not just looking for what is normal but also the absence of normal: ie my cat doesn’t jump up on the counter anymore.
So if I find that this sort of ability to be in more communication, quicker communication or even simpler communication, for example, a chat like Vidaah where you’re able to ask is this a concern? It probably is, and even if nothing is done right away, if you have constant communication you’re building this profile of “Oh its happening again; this is a chronic issue; we do have to tackle this” – so I’m interested to see on how telehealth plays out but I do think it has its rewards for sure.