The future of veterinary medicine is here. Are you ready?

October 26, 2016
Jessica Vogelsang, DVM

Youre not crazy. Change and innovation are happening faster everywhere, including veterinary practice. Heres your gut check so youre not left out of the glorious future of pet care.

( the Monday of the future, your receptionist picks up the phone and listens to Mrs. Jones request an appointment for her cat Fluffy because she suspects diabetes.

“Have you noticed any changes in her eating or drinking?” asks the receptionist.

“No,” Mrs. Jones replies, “but her litterbox just told me she's lost a pound and has glucose in her urine.” Your smart software handles the back-and-forth “does this day work for you?” logistics, freeing up your receptionist to check on Ranger, who's in because his collar reported a 25 percent decrease in activity over the last month. Instead of Googling a variety of incorrect differentials, Ranger's owners used your practice's convenient triage service and realized he needed to come in right away.

We live at a turning point in history when it comes to technology, and the future of veterinary medicine is overflowing with possibility and opportunity. There's only one thing standing in the way: veterinarians.

Digital evolution is crazy fast

The “drag me kicking and screaming only when there's no other option” approach has long been the default reaction of our profession when confronted with the changing face of technology, which wasn't a big issue when fundamental change took place over the course of decades and the only thing at stake was a phone with or without a cord. Now substantial evolutions happen in years or even months-and that changes everything.

Digital evolution is taking place not on a linear scale but an exponential one, a trend that didn't really take off until the turn of the millennium. Life in 1975 versus 1985 wasn't all that different, at least as far as available technology goes. In contrast, consider this: Just 10 years ago, smartphones didn't exist. (The iPhone debuted January 2007.) Every single way that mobile technology has changed our lives occurred in that time.

The fundamental nature of how clients obtain and process information has moved out of the clinic and onto the web. Who would have anticipated a decade ago that a client could broadcast your exam live on the internet and crowdsource the veracity of your diagnosis in real time using a phone? And if that's what's happened in the previous 10 years, what will 2027 look like for veterinarians?

Staying ahead of the game and anticipating the changes in store for us is a daunting prospect. Fortunately, Adam Little, DVM, has been thinking about it quite a bit. As director of veterinary innovation and entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, it's his job and his passion to explore the future of the profession-and rather than finding it daunting, he's exuberant about what he sees in store.


‘Most vet practices think they're innovating. They're not.'

In order to understand the types of changes Little speaks of when he says “disruptive innovation,” one first needs to know what innovation truly means. Little points to the car company Tesla as an obvious example.

“If you talked to car companies five years ago, they'd all say they're innovative,” he says. But while the big automakers were congratulating themselves on hybrids and Bluetooth integration, Tesla created the first all-electric vehicle that drove like a sports car, dissolved the traditional car dealership model and created self-driving technology that carries people over 1.5 million miles a day. But most importantly, says Little, Tesla created a model where cars can be upgraded and changed with the push of a button. That's disruption.

“Most vet practices think they're innovating,” Little says. “They're not.”

In other words, most of us are the Ford in this equation, sitting in bewilderment as our clients zip right on past us to the Tesla store.

( biggies on the horizon

Despite the relatively static nature of veterinary practice as far as our day-to-day job functions, changes are happening all around us. Take Rover, for example, an on-demand pet-sitting company that recently raised $40 million in investments.

“The veterinary industry would never see that as being disruptive to their space,” Little says. “[But] HBO didn't see Netflix as a disruptor.”

Little is looking at technology and apps like Rover and extrapolating how they might apply to veterinary medicine in three distinct categories:

1. Clients want to gather data faster. Little sees big changes already happening in American homes. Such wearable technology as the Whistle and Voyce monitoring collars have already established themselves in the consumer space as the dog version of activity trackers, but the next level goes even further-into diagnostic samples.

Where information is generated has shifted from the four clinic walls,” Little says. Sure, a collar that tells you your dog's heart rate or hours spent sleeping is one thing, but what about that litterbox we dreamed up earlier that tells whether a cat is PU/PD or losing weight? Or a device paired with an app that allows owners to monitor a diabetic pet at home? They're coming.

“All of a sudden, tasks that were reserved to the domain of the clinic begin to shift,” says Little. “An app similar to Rover that shows up overnight and offers the ability to manage diabetics at home changes things.”

Consumers who visit that company's website enter a pet's name, signalment and a variety of other data points and out pops a personalized, pre-portioned homemade diet sent right to their doorstep.

2. Clients want genetically individualized veterinary care. Little's second area of interest is genomics, using a pet's individual genome to provide a perfectly individualized plan of care in everything from drug therapy choices to diet. While that technology is still on the horizon, Little points to a pet food company that delivers individually formulated pet foods directly to the pet owner's home as evidence that consumers are looking for this. Consumers who visit that company's website enter a pet's name, signalment and a variety of other data points and out pops a personalized, pre-portioned homemade diet sent right to their doorstep.

While this company caters to maintenance diets for now, Little predicts a future where owners and veterinarians in search of specialized diets can enter similar information and receive a prescription formulation via home delivery.

“We know prescription diet compliance is terrible after the first couple of bags,” he says. “It gets difficult to manage that relationship.” But in addition to individualized client choice, we can't underestimate their need and expectation for convenience-and how that in turn generates profit.

“Amazon Prime customers generate three times the revenue of regular customers,” Little says. As veterinarians begin to incorporate genetic information into diet and therapy recommendations, highly personalized services like this will continue to grow.

3. Clients want telemedicine. You only need to look to your own doctor's office to see which way the winds are blowing. The number of medical video consultations is expected to grow fourfold in the next four years, according to research company Tractica. And if consumers want it for themselves, they'll want it for their pets too.

As things currently stand, the opportunity for veterinarians to practice medicine directly with new clients via mobile technology is limited by individual state practice acts, many of which (but not all) require an in-person examination to establish a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR). This has led to a confusing mishmash of on-demand websites and apps offering everything from advice posing as entertainment to second opinions and triage, skirting in and out of questionably legal territory.

Veterinarians may never agree to virtual physical exams the way human medicine has accepted them, but there are still huge opportunities for telemedicine to make a difference. While many practice acts forbid using telemedicine to establish a relationship with a new client, they say nothing about using it to provide improved care to current clients. Nor do they mention teleconsulting, in which referring DVMs do remote consults with specialists.

This is what has Little really excited, as it's a win for clients, DVMs and specialists alike. A pet owner who may or may not go through the process and expense of making a separate appointment at a different specialty facility may be more than happy to have their regular veterinarian talk to that specialist right there during their appointment.

“Specialists would love the opportunity to be a part of those decisions” in which clients would normally decline referrals, says Little. “We want to create a model where the collaboration between specialists and clinicians happens in real time on a micro scale.”


‘It's not about an app; it's a relationship business'

For those who cringe at the idea of keeping up on apps and technologies in the coming years, Little reminds us that the technology itself will always play a secondary role in the veterinary profession-and that's a good thing.

“It's not about an app, it's a relationship business,” he emphasizes. “People trust us and really do enjoy those individual relationships. These are tools to help us build that.

For those who cringe at the idea of keeping up on apps and technologies in the coming years, Little reminds us that the technology itself will always play a secondary role in the veterinary profession-and that's a good thing.

“While the models will need to change, there are opportunities for veterinarians to be a part of that. I believe the goal of veterinarians is to provide the best care to the most number of patients. We want a better life for animals and the people who depend on them.”

And that will never change.

Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, is a certified veterinary journalist, a regular contributing writer for a number of publications, author of the memoir All Dogs Go to Kevin, and creator of the popular blog