Context: Telephone triage is an effective way for medical emergency teams to organise and prepare for incoming cases in human and veterinary medicine. Trained telephone personnel are responsible for extracting as much information about the nature of the emergency as possible to allow the human / veterinary team to be able to deal with the case as effectively as possible. To some extent, this system relies on members of the public recognising what an emergency is and identifying when the right time to contact the appropriate veterinary service is. Approximately 7% of emergency calls taken in human medicine are not true emergencies, suggesting a lack of education in the general public. No equivalent data exists for veterinary out-of-hours services, therefore this study aimed to evaluate if veterinary clientele could differentiate between emergencies and non-emergencies.
Main conclusion: A large percentage (49-67%) of small animal pet owners could not accurately recognise veterinary emergencies within their pets. This figure is much higher than trends observed in human emergency medicine.
Approach: Retrospective call records (n=1000) from one small animal emergency out-of-hours practice in the West Midlands were reviewed. The reason for the emergency call was noted and then subdivided into eight categories based on veterinary literature: 1: dyspnoea and choking, 2: haemorrhage and open wounds, 3: poisoning, 4: systemic shock, collapse and dystocia, 5: seizures, 6: blunt trauma, fractures, burns and dislocations, 7: ocular injuries and 8: non-emergencies. The species affected was also recorded. Thematic analysis identified any emergent themes which appeared in the call records which were factors which led a client to initially contact the veterinary practice.
Results: The majority of calls made related to canine patients (67%), 27% were feline cases and 3% related to rabbits. A range of emergency categories were reported: 1: 4%, 2: 14%, 3: 5%, 4: 10%, 5: 4%, 6: 4%, 7: 4%, representing 45% of total calls, and the remaining 55% were non-emergencies. Within canine patients, 67% of calls were categorised as non-emergencies compared to 56% in cats and 49% in rabbits. Vomiting (9%), breathing difficulties (6%) and lethargy (6%) were the most common reasons why clients had contacted the out-of-hours service.
Interpretation: Caution should be applied when interpreting the data as the results can only accurately reflect the practice surveyed.
Significance of findings: Client education on what clinical and medical conditions require emergency treatment is recommended to prevent non-emergency calls out-of-hours.