Properly harnessing AI could reshape veterinary care

Publication
Article
dvm360dvm360 July 2023
Volume 54
Issue 7
Pages: 48

The latest AI tools can bolster patient care, client satisfaction, and revenue while alleviating staff workload

Miha Creative / stock.adobe.com

Miha Creative / stock.adobe.com

Arguably not a day goes by now without AI—artificial intelligence, that is—making headlines. We learn a new skill that it can master, better than you and I can. Many of us don’t know whether to be in awe or fear of its power, or both. Regardless, it is here and will impact our lives in many ways. And the veterinary profession and the practice of veterinary medicine are in no way immune. Robert Cartin, DVM, president of Cartin Veterinary Consulting, aptly describes the impact as “mind-blowing and limitless.”

I recently reached out to thought leaders in veterinary medicine, Cartin included, to learn how AI is impacting the profession today and what the near future looks like. Hint: My conclusion, not surprisingly, is that properly harnessing the power of AI will be a boon for the profession, leading to a tremendously positive impact.

Futuristic? Not really, AI is here and already impacting everyday veterinary practice life. What follows are some key examples of AI at work in today’s veterinary clinics.

Practice management innovations

Client intake, scheduling, check-in, and more!

Certain practice management software (PMS) systems and third-party apps can interact with clients to complete previsit paperwork and determine whether a wellness or medical visit is needed. AI can then schedule the appointment and its length based on the pet’s medical needs. Sebastian Gabor, CEO and founder of Digitail, whose PMS system is heavily focused on AI integration, highlighted the value of these automated steps that typically save a practice 5 minutes or more of time.

In addition, client information and history can then populate the PMS system and start building out the patient’s medical record. And near term, as the physical exam is completed, age and breed considered, AI can produce probable rule outs and diagnostics along with typical treatments including medications and dosages for identified problems. Treatment plans, client reports cards, and client education pieces on the diagnoses and medications can be available to the client in real time via print, email, and text.

Spending a lot of time on inventory control and ordering? AI quickly learns the inventory usage trends of the hospital and can take over and auto- mate the ordering process.

Short-staffed at the front desk? The virtual front desk product from AskVet is an AI-driven app that can answer clinic phones and client questions and schedule a pet’s appointment. Cal Lai, CEO and chairman of AskVet, said he envisions this technology being able to take over many of the tasks that the front desk deals with daily.

Medical and diagnostic innovations

Microscopy

AI’s impact on microscopy analysis is already very tangible. The SediVue Dx veterinary urine sediment analyzer from Idexx Laboratories, Inc, has been on the market for nearly 7 years. The unit automates the urinalysis reading process and provides in-house point-of-care results in just minutes.

Zoetis is another company utilizing AI for quick, accurate in-house microscopy results. Its virtual lab reader, Vetscan Imagyst, provides AI readings of blood smears as well as fecal analysis and digital cytology (ear, skin, other), with many results available to the team and clients within minutes. Richard Goldstein, DVM, vice president and chief medical officer of global diagnostics at Zoetis, said this type of AI technology is a game changer for veterinary practices. He not only touted the time-saving benefit for the team, but also noted that as the technology advances, its accuracy will be unpar- alleled. As he put it, “AI doesn’t have good days, bad days, long days, and doesn’t care if it’s the weekend. It just consistently delivers the results it has been trained to do.”

Imaging

Applying AI to radiographic interpretation is a natural fit, and tremendous strides have been made in both human and animal medicine. SignalPet is an example of a company in the veterinary space that offers a scanning service that reviews a digital x-ray and provides an initial interpretation of the imaging, with a turnaround time of just minutes and at a price point significantly less costly than a full radiologist read. Vetology is a second company that offers AI radiographic services along with traditional veterinary radiographic services.

The demand for radiographic interpretation often exceeds the veterinary radiologist’s availability to provide a report in a timely manner. Another concern is the cost of interpretation can be too expensive for clients. An appeal of AI-generated interpretation is that it is quick and cost-effective. A couple caveats here: AI does not have the expertise of a radiologist, is only as good as its training, and in certain cases can’t factor in variables and exceptions that an experienced board-certified veterinary radiologist can.

No worries. Radiologists won’t be replaced, but they may be able to focus more on complicated cases while standard or normal cases are handled by means of AI reads, alleviating some of the overdemand for radiologists.

Predictive analytics

AI through use of algorithms can analyze diagnostic results and also predict/forecast probable diseases in a pet’s future. Kidney disease in cats and cancer in dogs are 2 primary examples. Predicative analytics hold great promise for early-stage disease detection, which will allow for improved treatment outcomes.

Using AI properly for best results

AI is in our face and in our “space.” Is it time to be proactive and embrace it?

Goldstein said he’s seeing some hesitancy at the clinic level. “Teams often have 2 concerns—the first being they are afraid of being replaced by AI,” he noted. “And the second issue is about trusting the technology to give reliable results and information.” Are these valid concerns? When it comes to AI replacing us, at the veterinary clinic level, hospitals are woefully understaffed. Therefore, if AI technology can help answer phones, schedule appointments, enter client information, assist with medical records, and read fecal samples as well as ear swab and skin cytology results and more, wouldn’t that be a big time and stress saver? And when it comes to trusting results and information that are AI driven, with proper training, monitoring, and guardrails, AI may not only be reliable, but may also learn and improve over time.

Can the veterinary profession get comfortable with these concerns? Is AI just what the doctor ordered? It’s no secret that as a profession, we are understaffed, underpaid, and often stressed and burned out, with many leaving the field each year. Leveraging AI can allow team members to focus on doing those things that only humans can do—whether that’s diagnosing, prescribing, performing surgery, or working hands-on with patients and clients—vs doing jobs that technology can take off our plates.

The recipe above equates to a more efficient medical practice, which allows for more patient visits per day and improved, more timely service. More cases per day lead to a more profitable business, which can result in better compensation to its team.

Putting AI to work fulfills the vision of working smarter not harder. Used properly, and not with a blind eye, AI can be a big win for a profession that needs the help. At the end of the day if the mission is to provide the best medicine and best customer care in a rewarding (good culture) and profitable (for all) environment, then AI can help us get a step closer to being there.

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