Alternatives To In-Person Clinical Practice: Telemedicine As A Solution To Vet Burnout

Key takeaway

Mental health and burnout are serious issues in the veterinary industry that desperately need to be addressed. Not only are veterinarians considering leaving the profession due to these struggles, but they can also affect the quality of care we provide to our patients. With the ability to provide work-life balance and increased access to care, veterinary telemedicine can support our collective passion to help pets live happy and healthy lives.

When your pet patients visit your clinic, they always see you with a smile on your face. But, little do they know, you’re masking burnout. Burnout, as described by the World Health Organization is an occupational phenomenon that results from “chronic workplace stress.” Signs of burnout may include: 

  • Lack of energy
  • Dissociation from one’s job
  • Feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Vets are at an increased risk of burnout, and if you’re feeling burned out from your job of caring for animals, you’re not alone. 

After graduating from UC Davis, I began a non-stop journey in the veterinary field. I founded Coastal Animal Hospital, became a veterinary advisor for a series of start-ups, and started the HANA fund, a non-profit organization with a mission to prevent economic euthanasia. Then, in 2019, COVID-19 hit.

Like the rest of the world, I began feeling anxious and burned out. I almost quit my clinical practice due to chronic workplace stress. I felt like I had an unlimited capacity to do everything I’ve done in my career, and I didn’t think there were any consequences of pushing myself so hard for so long. But I was wrong. We’re only human, trying to juggle work, volunteering, relationships, and hobbies — it’s hard to do everything you want to do in a single day. 

Over half of veterinarians suffer from burnout, according to research from the Cornell Center for Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship. Burnout causes fatigue, insomnia, sadness, anger, and irritability. In both human and veterinary medicine, burnout can also lead to increased medical errors. 

I feel passionate about my work and my ability to help pets, and many other vets feel the same; they’re just burned out. So how can we combat burnout in the veterinary industry, and how can telemedicine benefit the vet and the patient? 

Mental Health And Burnout In The Veterinary Industry 

Mental health and burnout are very serious issues in the veterinary industry. According to Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study III conducted in 2021, the wellbeing and mental health of many veterinarians declined over the last few years, driven by COVID-19 and labor shortages. Veterinarians suffering from serious psychological distress increased from 6.4% in 2019 to 9.7% in 2021.1 In addition, nearly a third of veterinarians (30.5%) and half of veterinary support staff (49.5%) were classified as having high burnout on the Mayo Clinic Physicians Burnout Scale, and burnout was higher among younger veterinarians compared to older vets.1 

The percentage of of veterinarians suffering from serious psychological distress increased from 6.4% in 2019 to 9.7% in 2021

In general, many vets tend to have a strong achiever or perfectionist personality, scoring higher in neuroticism and lower extroversion than employed adults in the general population, making them more prone to stress and less likely to cope well with long work hours.2 This means that even though vets may be passionate about their jobs, they’re not coping well with long hours because there aren’t enough vets for every pet, forcing many vets to stay at their clinics later to accommodate pet parents. 

Even though many vets are passionate about their jobs, less than half of them (47%) would recommend the profession to friends or family members because of the high cost of becoming a veterinarian relative to the income and stress involved.1 

Many vets have also considered leaving the profession. As stated by the same 2021 Merck study, 40% of veterinarians are considering leaving the profession, with the top reason being a lack of work-life balance followed by mental health challenges. Burnout is also more prevalent in private practice associates compared to private practice owners, relief vets, and those in academic or not-for-profit roles.3

Simply put, vets are burned out, and if you’re feeling this way, you’re not alone. Many of us have felt the mental health struggles of the past few years. 

Why Are Vets Burned Out?

30.5% of veterinarians and 49.6% of veterinary support staff were classified as having high burnout on the Mayo Clinic Physician’s Burnout Scale

Being a vet has always come with a high level of stress because you’re constantly dealing with life-and-death situations and the unpredictability of what might happen in your day. Ultimately, you never know when a pet is going to have an emergency situation, and you’re the only one who can save them. However, this isn’t necessarily the only reason for our burnout. Here are reasons why vets are burned out:

Overbooked & Long Hours

A spike in the number of pets during the pandemic forced vets to work long hours, often being double booked throughout the week. Running from patient to patient can take a toll, especially when these pets may be suffering from abuse or trauma. In addition, we were forced to switch to a curb-side service fairly quickly in order to keep receiving patients, which put more pressure on everyone, from the vets to the vet techs. With only so many drop-offs we could handle at a time, we tried to get in as many patients as possible with few breaks or catch-up periods. 

Additionally, we can always expect something to pop up at the end of the day. For example, pet parents may be trying to get their pets in for a last-minute appointment after work, and we always try to accommodate them, which only means longer hours. 

Toxic Work Culture

In industries where you’re constantly overbooked and have long hours, there’s bound to be some form of toxic work culture. In the veterinary industry, this toxic work culture often stems from problems not being actively managed. Whether it is a verbally abusive boss or a coworker who refuses to cooperate, these problems can be detrimental and draining, adding to the already high stress of caring for animals in dire need of help. Toxic work culture can exacerbate burnout.

A toxic work culture can also cause compassion fatigue, limiting your organization’s ability to be more efficient. Compassion fatigue can leave you feeling emotionally numb, and it results in more stress because there’s a high rate of employee absenteeism putting more work on you, an inability for teams to work well together, and an overall lack of vision for the future.4 Compassion fatigue is normal. When you spend all day with your coworkers, you take on their stress. However, this can also add to your existing stress, leaving you feeling completely wiped out at the end of the day, especially if problems aren’t being solved efficiently and you can’t get your work done. 

Inadequate Organizational Support 

Unfortunately, many vets and their staff have trouble digesting abuse from clients. Pet parents are passionate about their pets, and they may be harsh with their words or act out from time to time due to the stress, uncertainty, and helplessness they feel when their pet is sick. It’s difficult not to let it get to you because you’re doing all you can for their pets, and many animal hospitals do not have structures put in place to help vets and vet techs work through these difficult interactions. 

Additionally, there’s no flexibility for life circumstances. If you have an appointment at 3 pm, even if you need to pick up your kid from school suddenly or deal with another emergency, you must still be there for your patient. While we always choose to put our patients first, staff shortages and our inability to take time off to deal with other aspects of our life can be very difficult. Canceling an appointment to take time off for a personal emergency cannot be avoided sometimes, but it can mean disappointing and losing the trust of a client you’ve already built rapport with. 

And finally, many veterinary organizations don’t have enough communication to discuss issues like burnout and mental health to reduce the stigma surrounding it. According to the Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study, 59% of veterinarians and 65% of support staff said they needed mental health treatment in the past year but didn’t get it.5 Mental health issues are a common occurrence in our industry, so it’s up to us to create a safe environment where everyone feels safe to talk about issues they’re having. 

Veterinary practices may also not provide insurance or employee assistance programs to cover the costs of mental health treatment and no active ways of fostering a healthy work culture. We put emphasis on our patients rather than staff and each other because that’s all we have time for, and our financial stability depends on it. 

What Is The Solution?

Many of the issues surrounding the veterinary industry revolve around mental health and burnout. We vets often do more than we must to support the health of pets around the globe. Most vets entered the profession because they love animals and want to help pets. However, how can we help pets if we’re burned out? Burnout leads to more mistakes in treatment, potentially harming our patients if we don’t take action. 

With little flexibility in our schedule and virtually no work-life balance, we need a solution that allows us to take control of our work. Telemedicine may provide vets with the ability to do this. Veterinary telemedicine is a fairly new concept, and many vets around the nation haven’t heard of the services they can provide pets from the comfort of their own homes. However, telemedicine supports more than just overworked vets — it can help pet parents get the care they need for their pets without having to schedule an appointment between the hours of 9 to 5 on a weekday. If you want to take back control of your work and schedule your own hours, telemedicine might be right for you to help you combat burnout and go back to what you do best — helping pets. 

Identify Your Ideal Scenario: Can Telemedicine Work For You? 

Have you recently realized you’re burned out, and your mental health is suffering due to your profession? Many vets are in the same position, with some considering leaving their jobs altogether. However, after identifying the problem and what’s causing your burnout, you can start to determine what you want in a job and what makes you the happiest. The happier you are, the more energized you’ll feel when treating pets and make you love your job again. Consider your core values, which could be:

  • Personal: Maybe you want to spend more time at home with your family or start a new hobby. Whatever you want to do, your life is yours, and you should be able to do it whether or not you’re a vet. 
  • Veterinary: As a veterinarian, you have goals, which is why you studied animal medicine in the first place. Whether you want to help underserved animals, practice gold-standard medicine, provide practical care, or want to be in an environment that fosters learning, you can choose which values matter most to you. 
  • Ideal work schedule: Everyone has a life outside of work, no matter their profession. Unfortunately, the veterinary industry doesn’t seem to provide you with much time for anything outside of work. 
  • Ideal pay: Your pay depends on several factors, but many veterinary professionals believe they’re underpaid for all the work they do. What if you could decide how much you work and how much you earn without someone deciding for you?
  • Ideal location: Believe it or not, work location can play a big role in how you feel about your job as a vet. If you have a long commute, it means you might not make it home until after the sun sets if you get a late patient. Do you regularly leave the clinic during lunch to relax, or is there nowhere for you to go, and you eat lunch in your office? Whatever the case, you don’t have to be stuck in a location that prevents you from having enough time for yourself. 

In addition, many vets feel trapped in their current situation. For example, if you work in private practice, you may want to branch out to shelter/rescue pets, research, or even wildlife, depending on your changing interests. You can also work in government for the USDA, state or local governments, professional organizations, or in education at a school. 

Or maybe, you don’t want to go to an office at all. Maybe you want to work remotely to diagnose, create a treatment plan, and prescribe remotely. Teleadvice, teletriage, and true telemedicine are all options that can work for you and have a lot of growth potential and a robust job market, and you can get in on the ground floor. The global veterinary telehealth market size was valued at $119.6 million in 2021 and has only continued to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 17.6% from 2022 to 2030. 

The fact is, you’re not stuck, and you don’t have to feel stuck. There are so many options available to you — you simply need to determine what interests you the most and can help you feel engaged to prevent burnout. 

Benefits And Drawbacks Of Practicing Veterinary Telemedicine

Veterinary telemedicine can be an effective method for preventing burnout in the veterinary industry with several benefits and few drawbacks. 

Benefits

Veterinary telemedicine offers the following benefits for vets: 

  • Ideal schedule: With telemedicine, you can choose when you work. If you have responsibilities during the day or simply want to spend more time with your family, you can pick your hours and appointments without having to worry about losing clients. 
  • Work-life balance: By allowing you to pick your own work schedule, you’ll improve your work-life balance. No longer will you have to spend long hours at the office seeing patient after patient. Instead, you’ll choose when you work and have enough time for other things that matter in your life. 
  • Location agnostic: Telemedicine allows you to work from anywhere in the world, so you can finally take that vacation you’ve wanted to while still working or work in the comfort of your own home. 
  • Physically non-demanding: Telemedicine is less physically demanding than working in a veterinary clinic because you don’t have to run from patient to patient. Instead, all you have to do is sign online to start seeing your patients. 
  • Clinical work: With telemedicine clinical work, you’ll work face-to-face with pet parents and their pets to diagnose and treat a range of illnesses that improve their quality of life and strengthen the human-animal bond. 
  • Increasing access to care: Many vets work with shelters and non-profits in their spare time to help underserved animals because they believe every animal deserves care. Veterinary telemedicine increases access to care, making it easier and more convenient for pet parents to get their pets the care they need from anywhere in the nation. 
  • Work from home: Unfortunately, there are many vets with chronic illnesses that prevent them from practicing in person, and many feel trapped because there are limited alternative options. Telehealth can be an ideal career for these veterinarians, allowing them to fit patients into their schedules. 

Drawbacks

There are very few drawbacks to veterinary telemedicine, but some include the following:

  • Less social interaction: When you diagnose and treat patients remotely, there’s less social interaction. There are no office managers or vet techs; it’s just you working by yourself. Depending on your current situation, this may be a plus because it means you get to perform the work you do best without worrying about anything else. 
  • Limited diagnostics: Veterinary telemedicine has come so far in the last few years. However, there are still limited diagnostics we can do through our computer screens. We’re unable to take care of emergency cases. However, that may also be a plus since constant exposure to emergencies and potentially fatal cases can lead to higher stress and burnout. 
  • Fewer long-term client relationships: Telemedicine for pets is still a new and budding industry, and pet parents are still learning about it, which means you may have fewer long-term relationships with clients, especially since you’re choosing your own schedule. 

Misconceptions About Veterinary Telemedicine

Veterinary telemedicine may be a confusing concept for some. Many vets have heard of it but don’t know what it is or how it works. Let’s bust a few myths and misconceptions about veterinary telemedicine.

Misconception 1: Veterinary telemedicine is done in a basement or country with unlicensed vets. 

Truth: Veterinary medicine can be done from anywhere in the world. While a vet may choose to turn their basement into an office, they cannot diagnose and treat pets without being licensed in their state. Any patients you see via telemedicine will be in your state because you must be licensed to treat them. 

Misconception 2: It’s trying to replace in-person care.

Truth: Telemedicine is an adjunct to in-person care. It actually supports in-person care by helping pet parents with non-emergency diagnoses and treatments so vets working in emergency clinics focus more on life-threatening cases instead of minor illnesses. 

Misconception 3: VCPR cannot be established remotely. 

Truth: The ability to establish VCPR varies by state. For example, California does not allow VCPR to be established remotely, but others do. Depending on where a patient is located, vets may only be able to provide general advice instead of true telemedicine. 

Veterinary telemedicine is just as legitimate as an in-person veterinary practice. As stated in “Spectrum of care: more than treatment options” published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “veterinarians may face scrutiny by a segment of their peers when offering care options from the less intensive and expensive end of the SoC (spectrum of care).”6 

Veterinary telemedicine is still looked down upon at times, even when it provides timely and successful treatment to pets that otherwise would have received no treatment. In order to provide our patients the best care possible, it’s crucial that we let go of this bias. Not only does it place a wedge between veterinary professionals who share the same goal, but it also shuts down many conversations about the future of the veterinary industry that are challenging and exciting.   

What can veterinary telemedicine do?

By now, you might be interested in learning more about veterinary telemedicine, wondering what we vets are able to accomplish through a computer screen. Veterinary telemedicine provides quick, accessible, and streamlined care that supplements and works in conjunction with in-person care, helping patients get the care they need for their pets faster while lightening the workload of general practice vets. Veterinary medicine can take shape in the form of behavioral medicine, dermatology, acute, non-life threatening issues (bridge care), and provide clients with reliable information they can use to keep their pets healthy. 

What can’t veterinary telemedicine do?

Unfortunately, there are several things telemedicine can’t do. While it can reduce the workload for in-person vets, there are some treatments we can’t do online, including imaging, dentistry, and surgery.

Veterinary telemedicine does not provide emergency care, but it can offer supplemental care that can help prevent non-emergencies from interfering with more important cases at a vet’s office. 

Vet working from home analyzing an x-ray and petting her cat

Combat Burnout By Choosing The Right Practice For You

If you’re burned out, you may think you don’t have options, but you do. What do you want your job to look like? Identify your ideal situation, find something that checks all your boxes, and keep an open mind for others that need alternative work solutions. Vet telehealth services like Dutch offer greater access to care for pet patients, help pets get more immediate care, and free up local vets for issues that require in-person diagnostics and treatment. We’re partnering with organizations like NOMV to educate vets like you on how telemedicine can alleviate vet burnout. If you’re ready to change how you live and work while providing exceptional care to pet patients, join our mission. 

Dr. Evans is the Clinical Director of Dutch and the owner of Coastal Animal Hospital.

References

  1. “Veterinary Wellbeing Study.” Merck Animal Health USA, 8 Feb. 2022, https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/about-us/veterinary-wellbeing-study.

  2. Anglim J;Horwood S;Smillie LD;Marrero RJ;Wood JK; “Predicting Psychological and Subjective Wellbeing from Personality: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31944795/.

  3. Bain B, Hansen C, Ouedraogo F, Radich R, Salois M. 2021 AVMA Report on Economic State of the Veterinary Profession. Schaumburg, IL: American Veterinary Medical Association (2021).
  4. “Organizational Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/organizational-symptoms-compassion-fatigue.

  5. Volk, John O., et al. “Executive Summary of the Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study III and Veterinary Support Staff Study.” AVMA, American Veterinary Medical Association, 1 Sep. 2022, https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/260/12/javma.22.03.0134.xml.

  6. Brown, Carolyn R., et al. "Spectrum of care: more than treatment options." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 1 Oct. 2021, https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/259/7/javma.259.7.712.xml