A new, collaborative telehealth project at Texas A&M University is improving access to mental health resources and veterinary medical care in underserved areas surrounding Bryan-College Station.
Jeremy Kenny, Veterinary Innovation & Entrepreneurship program manager in Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS); Dr. Lori Teller, director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital’s (VMTH) Virtual Vet telemedicine program; Dr. Carly McCord, director of the Health Science Center’s (HSC) Telebehavioral Care (TBC) clinic; and Dr. Ray Pentecost, a healthcare design expert from the College of Architecture, have joined forces to serve people in nearby communities who otherwise might not be able to access these lifesaving resources.
The idea for the project began two years ago, when Kenny joined the CVMBS with the goal of expanding the college’s use of telemedicine.
Noting the success of McCord’s TBC clinic, which provides mental health resources and counseling to local people facing barriers to health care, the team decided to explore the potential of creating a similar strategy for veterinary medicine.
“We sat down and quickly came up with this idea—that some of the mental health patients Dr. McCord was serving probably have pets as well. If they are unable to access care for their own mental health concerns, their pets probably aren’t getting the veterinary care they need either,” Kenny said. “So, we thought, what if we could partner to bring telehealth veterinary care to these people’s pets in much the same way that they’re able to get their own mental health care?”
They discovered the perfect funding opportunity for their project through the Texas A&M School of Innovation’s Innovation[X] grant, which brings together faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students from across campus to address real-world issues.
“The grant opportunity served as the catalyst for organizing our thoughts, because we needed to include students and meet all of these parameters that we hadn’t discussed yet,” Kenny said. “Once the grant opportunity came about, everything just fell into place.”
The four submitted their project, “Using Telehealth to Improve Access to Care for Humans and Animals in Underserved Areas,” and were awarded $20,000 for the first year, which would focus on the Brenham community.
How It Works
Before the CVMBS could begin offering veterinary care via telemedicine, pets owned by participants in McCord’s Brenham TBC clinic needed to be examined in-person to establish a Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship (VCPR) to comply with current veterinary telehealth laws.
“We realized it could be a great opportunity for fourth-year veterinary students on a primary care rotation to take a trip down to Brenham for a day and perform wellness exams on a variety of animals,” Teller said. “This would set up a VCPR with those animals so we could follow up with them via telemedicine for the next year.”
On Oct. 30, a group of students and faculty members from the CVMBS, HSC, and College of Architecture traveled to Brenham to hold their first “pop-up” wellness clinic. The group, which included faculty members Drs. Lori Teller and James Bilof, veterinary technicians Beki Davis and Laura Tompkins, and three fourth-year veterinary students on clinical rotations at the VMTH saw 12 dogs and one cat during the four-hour clinic.
“By all accounts, it was a success,” Teller said. “The three students really got a lot out of it, and I think they appreciated the opportunity to get hands-on experience with the animals and interact in-person with the clients, with all appropriate precautions. It was a joy to watch them get to work.”
“This experience reminded me of the importance pets hold; they provide a sense of companionship and community,” said James McNew, one of the fourth-year veterinary students who attended the “pop-up” clinic. “The individuals that I worked with were even brought to tears telling me how grateful they were for our services and how they wished they had the means to take their pets to the vet.
“It was truly humbling to be able to provide preventative care to pets through this grant,” McNew said. “It is a reminder and even a lesson that no assumptions should be made about the care someone provides their pet and why they make those decisions. It was an honor to be a part of this project and make a difference in the lives of both these pets and their owners.”
The students vaccinated all 13 animals, performed heartworm tests on the dogs, and addressed skin conditions and other minor health issues. They referred clients to local veterinarians for bigger concerns and dispensed medications for common conditions, with help from two Texas A&M pharmacy students who also work in the VMTH Pharmacy.
“We were grateful for the Pharmacy students’ help,” Teller said. “They printed labels for medications dispensed and verified doses. When they enter the pharmacy profession, they will have a great appreciation for what veterinarians do because they got to see it live and share in the experience.”
In addition to benefiting all of the students in attendance, the “pop-up” clinic was greatly appreciated by the pets’ owners.
“One client who was in a wheelchair told me, ‘I cannot get medical care for myself and I am so grateful that my dogs are being seen by a doctor today. My dogs are my life. You’ve made my day—no, my week—no, my month,’” Teller recalled.
As the project continues, the VMTH will conduct telemedicine visits with the owners of the pets they treated in Brenham to address ongoing health concerns.
In addition to directly helping the pets, the project will have lasting impacts on both human and veterinary medicine through the data it provides on telemedicine and, because the pet owners usually participate in McCord’s TBC clinic, the role pets play in mental health.
“Through all of this, we plan to be able to generate a lot of data that shows the efficacy of telehealth and why it’s beneficial,” Teller said. “But we also want to help provide more support for the human-animal bond research that currently exists.
“We know through the various research and statistics that have already been provided by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute that there are direct correlations between pets and their owner’s mental and physical health. The better off the pet is, the better off their owner’s health is,” she said. “So, we’re going to help their pets get better and hopefully be able to measure the positive outcomes that we’re assuming will be had on the owners’ mental health.”
By continuing to collaborate with the HSC and the College of Architecture, Kenny and Teller hope this project will expand to help even more pets and people in areas surrounding Bryan-College Station.
“Telemedicine is going to be an important part of the way veterinary care is practiced in the future,” Kenny said. “If we can start educating students now and getting them practice on the best ways to do telemedicine, it’ll certainly be beneficial to them 10 years from now when they’re out in practice and it’s much more mainstream.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216