COVID-19 GUIDANCE AND RESOURCES FOR VETERINARY SURGEONS
According to the Australian Government Department of Health, the COVID-19 outbreak represents a significant risk to Australia. It has the potential to cause high levels of morbidity and mortality and to disrupt our community socially and economically The following resources are provided to help veterinary surgeons plan for, prevent and minimise the spread of COVID-19 in Western Australia.
Veterinary information and resources
- Employers and businesses have a duty to keep staff safe at work. The WA Worksafe website has information on workplace preparedness for COVID-19 and some general workplace guidance on managing employment issues related to COVID-19.
It doesn’t hurt to be prepared:
- We recommend that veterinary surgeons and clinics start planning now, if you haven’t already. Do a risk assessment and think about how you can protect staff who are at particularly high risk (such as those with comorbidities).
- Prepare a contingency plan.
- Think about ways to ask clients about whether they, or those they are in close contact with, are self-isolating or infected, before they attend the clinic. It would also be prudent to check whether they are themselves are at higher risk from infection.
- Veterinary surgeons and clinics should consider ways to minimise exposure of staff to the virus. Some practical examples are:
- Careful case selection following in-person and teletriage processes to assess patient condition and exposure risk to staff.
- Deferral of non-urgent patient care. For example, six-monthly and annual health checks and vaccination visits could be postponed following risk assessment.
- Offering alternatives to in-person consultation, where appropriate, to reduce direct client contact. For example, admitting patients for assessment and care could reduce prolonged client contact.
- considering the use of veterinary telemedicine (VTM) in appropriate cases. Cases that may suit VTM could include:
- Post-op assessment
- Medical progress exams and revisits
- Repeat authorisation/prescription requests
- Lower risk cases like non-urgent skin diseases and mild gastrointestinal conditions in adult pets, etc.
- It is also a good idea to consider how to safely provide products (medicines and other products) to clients while minimising exposure risk.
- Consider increasing staff safety measures to prevent workplace injury. This is to minimise the need for staff to seek medical care and therefore reduce the demands on our healthcare system as well as the risk of exposure while receiving the medical care.
In some cases, if the COVID-19 infection becomes more widespread in Western Australia, looking after yourself and your staff will probably mean departing from best practice. We recognise this and will take the broader situation into account if any concerns are raised with the Board.
Using veterinary telemedicine
Veterinary telemedicine (VTM) can be used by veterinary surgeons in Western Australia and may be a helpful tool to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The Board expects veterinary surgeons to use their professional judgment to decide whether using VTM is appropriate in particular circumstances.
The Guidelines on Veterinary Telemedicine require that veterinary surgeons who diagnose and treat patients using remote technology:
- Ensure that a bona fide veterinary surgeon/client/patient relationship has been established;
- Make a judgement about the appropriateness of a telemedicine based consultation and in particular whether a direct physical examination is necessary;
- Assess the animal’s condition based on history, clinical signs and appropriate examination;
- Accept the ultimate responsibility for evaluating information used in assessment and treatment, irrespective of its source. This applies to information gathered by a third party who may have taken a history for the animal or examined the animal; and
- Make a compliant clinical record for the examination and treatment of the animal.
In light of the risk COVID-19 poses, the Board is of the view that, if it becomes widespread in Western Australia, it would be appropriate for veterinary surgeons to also use VTM to authorise scheduled medicines where they can reasonably judge it safe to do so using patient histories and/or recent visits to the premises even without having seen the animal recently. Risk assessment and professional judgment by the veterinary surgeon in each case is still vital.
What if our practice has to close or reduce services?
If COVID-19 becomes widespread in Western Australia, it is possible that some practices may need to close or reduce services because staff members test positive for the virus and need to self-isolate.
If this happens, the practice should:
- Notify their clients as soon as possible. Give them as much information as possible about how long this will be in effect for and, if possible, direct them to other places they can find help. That could be a neighbouring practice (ideally talk to them first) or our online register of practices
- Make sure the phones are diverted and the answerphone is updated.
- Consider putting a notice on the practice’s website.
- If the practice operates its own emergency afterhours service, try to find alternative cover for this. If an afterhours centre is used, double-check that this is still able to operate.
If a veterinary surgeon in this situation is contacted by a client about an animal that the veterinary surgeon decides needs urgent veterinary attention, they should consider whether they can safely examine and treat the animal (for example having the animal dropped at the practice and admitting it for inpatient care). If that isn’t possible, consider using VTM or referring to another veterinary surgeon.
Where services have to be reduced, the focus should be on triage and prioritising urgent cases. VTM may be particularly helpful.
What if a client is self-isolating or has COVID-19?
Consider ways the animal could be examined while minimising risk. This could be someone other than the owner bringing it or admitting the animal as an inpatient with minimal direct contact with the client.
There is no current evidence that animals can spread COVID-19. A person with COVID-19 may sneeze or shed the virus onto the fur of animals which could spread the virus to other people and good hygiene practices should be used.
In appropriate cases, VTM can be used, particularly for initial triage. If absolutely necessary, medicines could be authorised using VTM where it isn’t safe to see the animal in person.
General guidance on acting in situations where you may need to act outside the Guidelines on Telemedicine or other standards
The Board strongly recommends making a detailed record of your decision making in these circumstances.
- Is this an emergency (is there a need for immediate or early veterinary treatment to save life or relieve unreasonable or unnecessary pain or distress)?
- Can the animal be referred to someone better able to deal with the situation?
- Discussing the situation with the client and getting their views and informed consent.
- What are the risks and are there ways to reduce them (e.g. regular and frequent follow up)?
- Could your actions be justified to your peers?