Veterinary telemedicine offers numerous advantages for both clients and teams. Not only does it improve your clients’ access to their veterinarian, it can also allow high-quality care to be provided in a more efficient manner.
In order to truly reap the rewards of telemedicine, however, you’ll need to charge appropriately. Giving away your time and energy will negatively impact your bottom line, while also resulting in clients who fail to recognize the value of your services.
You probably already offer telemedicine for free.
As veterinary professionals, we entered this profession to help pets and their people. Therefore, when clients call for advice or assistance, we tend to provide it free of charge. After all, it’s just one quick question…right? Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t just affect the veterinarian who fails to charge for services. It also affects the practice’s overall financial health and the compensation of every member of the veterinary team.
Overcoming mental hurdles associated with charging for telemedicine is often the hardest step for veterinarians and their team members. It’s difficult to wrap your mind around charging for services that you have traditionally offered at no charge. It can also be difficult to determine when a telemedicine fee is and is not appropriate.
Telephone triage services should remain free. When a pet owner calls with a concern and a member of the veterinary team determines if and when the pet should be seen, that is basic triage. General veterinary advice about vaccine schedules or parasite prevention shouldn’t carry a cost to the client. That is part of providing customer service and helping to attract clients to your practice.
When a client has specific medical questions that require a veterinarian to consult their pet’s medical record, this crosses the line from triage to telemedicine. Conversations about chronic disease management (including at-home glucose curve monitoring), medication changes, quality of life, and other patient-specific concerns are telemedicine. Implementing telemedicine appointments ensures that the client has the veterinarian’s undivided attention for these conversations, and the veterinarian should be compensated for their time.
There are several ways to charge for telemedicine services.
When choosing how to charge clients for telemedicine, you have several options.
The most common approach is to set a “telemedicine exam” fee. Using your in-office exam fee as a starting point, select a similar price for a telemedicine exam. You might make this exam fee slightly lower than an in-office exam, to reflect the fact that these visits are less labor- and resource-intensive.
Alternatively, you might opt to charge the same fee for all exams. All exams require the same amount of veterinarian time; a telemedicine exam can be viewed as an added convenience for the client, who may not want to load their pet into a carrier for an in-person visit. Either approach is valid, as long as you’re consistent.
Some practices charge by the veterinarian’s time, instead of having a single telemedicine exam fee. If you charge in this way, you can have a set fee per 5 minutes and bill the client once you have seen how long it takes to address their concern. This approach can feel more equitable, given the variation between client concerns, but can make scheduling more challenging.
Finally, some practices avoid the need to charge for each telemedicine exam through the use of a subscription service. You can charge a separate subscription fee for telemedicine services, or add telemedicine consults to your practice’s existing wellness plans.
What else should you consider?
Some telemedicine patients will also need an in-person physical exam or laboratory tests. Before implementing telemedicine services, decide how you will approach these situations.
Some conditions can’t be diagnosed without a hands-on exam. You might perform a telemedicine exam over video chat, only to advise the client that you need to see their pet in-person. Unfortunately, clients who have paid for a telemedicine exam may be reluctant to pay for a second in-person exam. Many practices apply some or all of their telemedicine exam charge towards an in-person exam, to encourage clients to follow up on recommended visits.
If a pet only needs diagnostic testing, you might schedule a technician appointment (with a reduced office visit charge). A technician can collect samples and perform diagnostic tests, with the results reviewed by the veterinarian. The cost of reviewing the lab results would be covered under the additional telemedicine fee, so the technician appointment fee only needs to cover the technician’s time.
It may be difficult to develop firm rules for every situation that could be encountered. However, developing a plan to address the most likely possibilities can help ensure consistency throughout your practice.
Can you really make money on telemedicine visits?
Telemedicine services do not appear to have any negative impacts on a practice’s bottom line. In fact, some veterinarians note improved owner compliance with virtual visits compared to in-person visits, possibly because these visits allow more time for client education. Also, you’re probably already giving away some telemedicine services for free, so implementing a formal program allows you to charge for those services.
If you charge clients directly for their telemedicine visits (instead of using a subscription-based service), consider how you will collect fees. Third-party telemedicine platforms may be able to collect payment for you. If you’re using Zoom or Facetime, decide in advance when your customer service representatives will collect payment: when the appointment is scheduled or after it has been completed. Consistency is key to ensuring that these charges are captured and billed appropriately.
The bottom line
As with any new technology, it’s important to carefully think through a variety of scenarios before implanting a telemedicine program in your practice. Decide how you will charge for both telemedicine consultations and follow-up care. Develop a written plan for common scenarios and educate your entire team. Clear client communication will help set appropriate expectations, making telemedicine a more positive experience for everyone involved.
Cathy Barnette, DVM
Cathy Barnette, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance writer based in Florida. After 14 years as a small animal general practitioner, Dr. Barnette now focuses on creating educational content for veterinary teams and their clients. She shares her home with her husband, daughter, one dog, two cats, and a rescued white dove.