A two-year-old yellow Labrador dog was the inspiration behind an innovative new startup that connects veterinarians with pet owners through video chat.
In fact, Bo is chief inspiration officer for Healthy Pets, which is based out of the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ont.
"We're an online marketplace where pet parents can connect to a local veterinarian on demand through video chat. It offers an alternative way for pet owners to access trustworthy veterinary care," said Emma Harris, founder and chief executive of the company. "It's more accessible and it's a more affordable alternative. Right now, pet parents have to basically call to book an appointment some time in advance, take time off work, struggle to get their pets to the clinic, spend at least $100."
The idea for the company started in July, 2016, when her dog Bo became quite ill.
When Bo was very young – four or five months old – he developed a chronic cough. That led to multiple visits to the vet. Eventually, months later, Bo was diagnosed with a rare infection known as lung worm. (It is so rare that he was one of only two cases in the province that year.) Ms. Harris figured she spent about $10,000 over the course of six months on appointments, treatments, and medication for Bo.
"When all the stress subsided I realized that half of that could have been avoided had an alternative to the in-clinic appointment existed. I started to do some research on the telemedicine model and its absence in veterinary care but its success in human health care," said Ms. Harris.
She started building the prototype for Healthy Pets in November, 2016. She went to the College of Veterinarians of Ontario but found there was nothing in place to allow for telemedicine. That's when she started lobbying for something in this field.
In April, 2017, the Council of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario announced it had approved a new standard regarding the use of telemedicine in the delivery of veterinary medicine in Ontario.
"With advancements in technology, the public can have improved access to veterinary medicine. This standard supports innovation in the delivery of safe, quality veterinary medicine in Ontario," said Dr. Marc Marin, president of the college, in a news release.
The professional practice standard, approved by council, defines telemedicine as the delivery of veterinary medicine using information and communication technologies where the veterinarian and the patient are not in the same physical location.
"The College's expectations of veterinarians remain the same whether they are delivering service in-person or through telemedicine. The College is actually one of the first regulators in North America to support the establishment of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship via telemedicine," said Jan Robinson, registrar and chief executive office at the college.
By July, Ms. Harris was in the market.
Today, she works with about 20 veterinary clinics in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor. Veterinarians are scheduling their individual availability and collectively they are able to answer concerns and questions through video chat at most times of the day and even into the evening hours. Eventually Ms. Harris hopes to launch the service 24/7.
"They deal with almost any concern. A certain number of concerns will be triaged. We provide advice and triage when necessary because everything can't be addressed online but any question can be asked online and the pet owner will understand the severity of their concern and if it warrants booking an in-clinic appointment," Ms. Harris said.
Louis McCann, CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada, a non-profit, member-based group that advocates on behalf of the Canadian pet industry, believes telemedicine is a useful tool in delivering pet care.
"We support any model that nurtures the health of pets and supports pet families. Facilitating easy access to health care professionals can improve the well-being of Ontario's pets and foster positive pet experiences for pet owners," he said.
Ms. Harris said the response to her company launch has been positive. "I haven't undertaken any marketing yet for this company because I was self-funding it until recently. But we have seen a couple of hundred people find it organically, use it and all of our reviews and data we can see internally has been very, very positive."
The cost for pet owners is $35 for a single appointment or $25 a month for one-year subscription offering unlimited access to the platform. Currently, the service is only available in Ontario.
Ms. Harris realized a long-held dream this year when she appeared with Bo on the Dragon's Den television show where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. That episode has not aired yet, but well-known Canadian entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson has become a mentor and adviser for Ms. Harris.
Ms. Dickinson could not be reached for comment but her business partner, Jason Berenstein of District Ventures Capital, said Ms. Harris is "addressing health and wellness needs."
"She's on trend," he said.
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