Two o’clock in the morning. The telephone rings. A dog vomiting repeatedly. Sunday afternoon. The telephone rings. A limping cat. Halfway through dinner. The telephone rings. A horse colicking. In the shower after work. The telephone rings. A dog, lethargic and not eating. Day after day. Night after night. Weekends. Holidays. The telephone rings.
I came to the Vineyard in 1982. There was only one veterinary practice here, staffed by three docs, one of whom lived in Falmouth. We did our best to provide 24/7 emergency coverage. The Island population was much smaller. The expectations people had of us, far simpler. As time went on, the population grew, both people and pets. More veterinarians came. We kept trying. Twenty-something years ago, a group of us got together and started sharing the load by rotating shifts for after-hours coverage. It has been a complex endeavor. Some of us don’t treat horses and cows. Some don’t do surgery. Some don’t have X-ray capabilities. Some practices have two or three doctors, some are solo. But we made it work. It hasn’t always been perfect but we have given it our all.
In February, I will be 67 years old. (February fifth, to be exact, should you want to send a card. Or flowers. Or chocolate.) After 40 years working full time during the day and being on call after hours, I freely admit I am tired. Very tired. And I know I can speak for other veterinarians here who have been doing the same. We are getting older. We are tired. There are far more of you living here than there used to be . . . and fewer veterinarians. A percentage of the new population in recent years seem to expect the same level of emergency access and state-of-the-art care they received in major metropolitan areas where there are many more vets and emergency hospitals. Not here. There is a nationwide shortage of veterinarians and support staff all over but, as we all know, the Island has added challenges when it comes to attracting workers. Lack of affordable housing. The high cost of living.
Hiring veterinarians here is even harder. Why? A few reasons. Several of our practices service both small animals (cats and dogs) as well as large animals (horses and cows). Years ago many veterinarians were comfortable working “mixed practice” but this is becoming less and less common. There are also very few veterinarians nowadays willing to take a position that requires being on call after hours at all. The younger generation of vets is used to having easy access to nearby 24-hour emergency hospitals and simply referring cases when needed. They expect better work-life balance, which means working regular office hours, then going home to do the things regular folks do. Spend uninterrupted time with their kids. Sleep through the night.
Island veterinarians have never been able to do this. There is no 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital on the Vineyard. Our seasonal economy would not support such a facility year-round and, to date, we have been unsuccessful in finding anyone interested in taking on such a project. We want to be there for you, but we have been reaching the breaking point. Now don’t panic. We have a plan. We are trying something new. Animal Health Care Associates, the Vineyard Veterinary Clinic, My Pet’s Vet, Caring For Animals, and Dr. Jasny’s office have joined together and signed up to use a telehealth service called VetTriage. Founded by Dr. Shadi Ireifej, a board-certified veterinary surgeon, VetTriage’s goal is to improve the life of veterinarians and pet owners in areas like ours by utilizing technology to provide telehealth care when our offices are closed.
Here’s how it works. If you have a problem after hours that you don’t think can wait, go to UrgentVetCareMV.com. Click the button that says “Connect Now.” Fill out a quick form, pay 50 dollars, and within minutes you have a live virtual appointment with a qualified veterinarian. You can see them. They can see you. They can even see your pet to assist them in assessing the urgency of the situation. They will give you medical advice. Don’t worry. If the VetTriage doc determines your pet needs to be seen immediately, our group is still rotating coverage. VetTriage will call us. Then we will call you and arrange a visit. No internet access? You can still reach VetTriage by calling 702-483-8533.
VetTriage has found roughly 80 percent of their calls can be handled with telehealth advice, then wait until business hours to be seen by the regular vet. Since its launch in 2019, they have helped almost 10,000 pets, including 25 different species, in nine different countries. Their greatest impact is in remote regions such as rural Alaska, where 24-hour emergency hospitals do not exist, or geographically isolated places such as Martha’s Vineyard, where VetTriage can take some of the load off veterinarians in the community who are still striving to provide their own after-hours emergency coverage. Dr. Shadi personally vets (his pun, not mine) all of their doctors to ensure they not only are licensed, but also experienced and compassionate about animal health.
There will be kinks to iron out as we get this new service up and running. Please be patient. Our goal is to only refer to VetTriage after hours. During normal office hours, just call your veterinarian. If they can’t see you, they can still refer you directly to the Island vet on our rotation for “urgent care.” In the two weeks since we started with VetTriage they have received 14 calls. Five were passed to the Island vet on call to be seen immediately. Nine were handled by telehealth. That’s nine times one of your veterinarians got to finish dinner, or spend time with family, or sleep through the night. Let’s work together. Help us take care of ourselves so we can continue to be here to take care of your animals. UrgentVetCareMV.com