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OVC Health Sciences Centre ramps up services as province begins to re-open

Registered Veterinary Technician and student veterinarian with a dog at the OVC Smith Lane Animal HospitalAfter more than two months focused on emergency care to the most urgent of cases, the Ontario Veterinary College’s Health Sciences Centre (HSC) at the University of Guelph gradually began increasing its case load in mid-May. 

With a focus on client, staff and patient safety, the HSC team has steadily increased caseloads in the hospitals over the past few weeks. 

As of mid-June, all services were open in the OVC Companion Animal Hospital (CAH) and in the OVC Smith Lane Animal Hospital in the Hill’s Primary Healthcare Centre, including elective procedures, oncology and emergency services at the OVC CAH. The OVC Large Animal Hospital was partially open for elective cases. 

“We did not have specific timelines in place as we planned how to increase caseloads in the HSC,” says Dr. Stephanie Nykamp, OVC Associate Dean, Clinical Program. “Our focus was to do this in a gradual and controlled manner with an eye to what is going in on the community and ensuring everyone is safe.”

Registered Veterinary Technicians in the OVC Health Sciences CentreThe HSC companion and large animal referral hospitals and the OVC Smith Lane Animal Hospital transitioned to urgent care only in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the country. 

Since that time, administrative staff have worked remotely while clinicians, registered veterinary technicians and animal care attendants rotated through the hospitals to provide care. 

As the province began unveiling plans in May for a phased-in re-opening of the province, the HSC leadership team looked ahead to next steps in the HSC. 

The team worked closely with the clinic heads and service chiefs to gradually increase urgent cases and then eventually elective cases. 

“As the caseload increased, we brought in additional staff, adding a few team members each week to ensure we focus on safety for everyone,” adds Nykamp.

Registered Veterinary Technicians in the OVC Heatlh Sciences CentreEnhanced biosecurity protocols initiated in early March continue to be a vital part of the hospitals’ day-to-day operation. Guided by the OVC HSC Chief Infection Officer, Dr. Scott Weese, the HSC team developed protocols for clients, patients and staff, including the use of personal protective equipment. The team also developed protocols for screening and communicating with clients to minimize the number of people entering the building. 

A new telehealth platform was an important component to help HSC clinicians triage cases and manage patient care through virtual consults with referring veterinarians and clients

“As the HSC has transitioned back to a full case load, clinicians will continue to use this approach as much as possible to both triage cases that are not urgent and provide care to clients,” says Nykamp. 

A horse and foal in the OVC Heatlh Sciences CentrePlans had been in place to launch a telehealth platform prior to the pandemic. The initiative was moved up due to the immediate need and has been very successful, notes Nykamp. 

“Recognizing many patients cannot be seen by telehealth alone, using this as a hybrid appointment has been a positive way to keep our team safe during this outbreak,” she adds. “The initial contact via telehealth and even using the platform to communicate with clients in their vehicle once they arrive at OVC, also provides the opportunity for a stronger connection to OVC and a better client experience in this time of physical distancing.”

At the OVC Smith Lane Animal Hospital in the Hill’s PHC veterinarians also offered telemedicine consults, including parasite control consults by phone to ensure pets received flea, tick and heartworm medication during parasite season. 

Dr. Tiffany Durza in the OVC Smith Lane Animal HospitalAs of June, the clinic has also opened up to offer regular services and surgery as needed, including rehabilitation services. The clinic continues to maintain a closed waiting room and provide curbside pickup of food and medications.

“Throughout this experience, the commitment of everyone on our HSC team to the health and well-being of our patients and to each other has been incredible,” says Nykamp.

Notes OVC Dean Jeff Wichtel, “Dr. Nykamp and her team have shown exemplary leadership, working closely with clinicians and staff to keep the hospital doors open, both large and small, and transition the service to urgent cases only and then a gradual and safe return to seeing elective cases.” 

A vital component of protocols to protect these essential and frontline workers, who are often in close contact while providing animal care, has been the use of personal protective equipment. 

As the HSC looked to bolster supplies of reusable masks and face shields, the community responded. 

Dr. Shannon Gowland in the OVC Smith Lane Animal HospitalMore than 800 cloth masks were donated to the HSC through a reusable mask-sewing project. A call for mask makers attracted staff, faculty, family members, friends and members of community sewing groups. 

When sourcing face shields for essential and frontline workers became difficult, Nykamp reached out to John Phillips, Senior Design Engineer at the Interdisciplinary Design Lab for help. Phillips has frequently worked with HSC researchers and clinicians on 3D projects that are enhancing clinical care. 

Phillips developed a number of prototypes for hospital staff to test and provide feedback. The resulting creative design combines comfort and function with easy maintenance. 

Likewise, the OVC HSC reached out to support human healthcare colleagues with donations of masks and gowns, with essential medications for patients on ventilators, as well as loaning ventilators to the Guelph General Hospital. 

“I am immensely grateful for the wonderful team we have in the HSC and their commitment to provide the highest level of care for their patients, even under the most challenging circumstances,” says Wichtel. “My sincere thanks goes out to every member of our frontline team.”