In theory, the PetsMD Mobile Symptom Checker iPhone/iPod application could be a great tool for pet owners to use in conjunction with their veterinary visits. The app allows users to enter their pets’ symptoms, then read articles and information about possible causes. And while the information clients gain should be used as a starting point before a veterinary visit, some might decide to use it to skip your practice altogether.
For example, here’s what reviewer Alan Kane had to say about the app: “Great info about my pets before going to the vet, or saving a vet visit!”
So could your practice lose business—and your patients suffer—as a result of this app or others like it? Perhaps, says Brenda Tassava, director of operations at Broad Ripple Veterinary Management Solutions in Indianapolis, Ind. “The articles I've read on the app aren’t quite direct enough,” she says. “The language used tends to be a little wishy-washy. For example, instead of saying ‘Your veterinarian needs to perform the following diagnostics...,’ an article might say ‘Your veterinarian may perform the following diagnostics…’
“Additionally, there seems to be lack of urgency present in these articles,” Tassava says. “I couldn't get a ‘blocked kitty’ article to come up with the cat urinary symptoms. I did manage to find a bloat article for dogs. The article states, in bold: This is an emergency, you must get your pet to a hospital ASAP, emergency surgery is required to correct this. But this doesn’t appear until the fourth sentence of the first paragraph. In these cases, I’d prefer to see a huge red warning alerting a client immediately.
“Another concern is the reviews on the download page. The app has an average rating of just two out of five stars. The negative reviews seem to be from people who are looking for an app that will answer all their worries and function as a replacement for seeing a veterinarian. Nothing should replace the veterinarian-patient-client relationship, and these apps need to focus on the importance of seeing your veterinarian to prevent disease and illness, as well as prompt them to seek veterinary care in more cases than are mentioned on this particular app.”
But you and your fellow team members should get used to this form of client information seeking, Tassava says. “This is the wave of the future, whether the veterinary community likes it or not,” she says. “The key will be giving these companies feedback so they can improve their apps and eliminate these problems in their updates.”
As team members, you also play an important part in ensuring clients understand how to use information online. Be prepared to talk to pet owners about reliable sources of Internet information. You should consider compiling a list of reputable Web sites—and apps—and making it readily available to clients.