A utopian future for veterinary medicine: How tech will get us there

October 19, 2016

An honest assessment of veterinarians' hang-ups with technology and a path to move forward.

Welcome to the future.


Adam Little, DVM, says you can offer better service and veterinary care while requiring less money and time from the pet owner.

Skeptics, are you rolling your eyes yet?

OK, so Dr. Little, the director of veterinary innovation and entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, agrees that hasn't always been the case. But the means to that end lies right in the palm of your hand-literally, your phone-and it's the key to the future of veterinary practice.

Cutting-edge technology is not normally synonymous with lowered costs, particularly in the medical field, and accomplishing this feat requires rethinking large portions of how veterinarians interact with clients. The technology that will make this happen doesn't come in the form of state-of-the-art MRIs or lightning-fast blood gas analyzers, but in tools that allow practices to run at maximum efficiency while providing care both in the clinic and at home.

Symbiosis with tech

The first element of this technology is in the running of the practice itself, according to Little.

“There are practices today that are incredibly successful, because they intuitively know what every other member of the practice is doing at any given time,” he says. For practices lacking such innate personnel symbiosis, technology can help.

“We're getting to a point where software can help replicate the manual processes,” he says, which keeps practices running at maximum efficiency, coordinating the flow of the day to reduce stress and increase productivity.

Karen Felsted, DVM, CVPM, MS, CPA, agrees. She argues that if you could reduce the number of things the pet owner finds most time-consuming (read: annoying) about the veterinary visit, the more likely they are to focus on the super-valuable conversation with the veterinarian.

"The more tech-oriented the practice, the more you value the most efficient use of the pet owner's time, the more you'll see the perceived value of your services increase," she says.

Sounds great, right?

Merging tech + vetmed

The second element Dr. Little envisions is perhaps a little more avant-garde. He's worked at the intersection of emerging technology and veterinary medicine for the entirety of his career, giving him unique insight into the possibilities for tomorrow's veterinary practices.

“We're looking to build out a new primary care model,” he says, “with a digital suite of services and an in-house suite of services, with more affordable options for finance.”

He predicts a future where many sample collections take place in the home instead of the clinic. By using advanced collection techniques and apps to assist in acquiring and interpreting data, veterinarians free up time to focus on what matters-building a relationship with the client with one-on-one time.

Tech models are competitive with veterinary clinics. That's gotta change.Here's an example of that efficiency from Felsted: If your practice could do diagnostics in advance or use technology to allow pet owners to get data at home, when pet owners come into the practice, they could focus entirely on the treatment plan. Value is added.

"You're not marginalizing the veterinarian and you're not compromising the value of the veterinarian's service," she says. "You're adding to it."

Right now, tech models are competitive with veterinary clinics, which is a key point to remember, Dr. Little says. He thinks that could change.

"I think we need to figure out which tools these models provide that will support and enable the practices that we do have-because they're often very complementary," Little told an audience at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons this past July in the UK.


(Next page: The rise of the virtual partner)


The rise of the virtual partner

Cats taking selfies? What had the world come to?!For travel booking, fitness tracking and fighting parking tickets, “chat apps” today use a combination of human and artificial intelligence to guide people through conversations and their problems. The funny thing is that veterinarians enjoy living in this world, and many regularly take advantage of apps like these, says Little. But when clients use it? Whoa, no good.

Case in point: An email from a Vetted reader criticizing our coverage of Petnostics, an in-home urine monitoring kit for pet owners. (We regularly cover products, highlighting innovative, technological advances in products promoting animal health and wellbeing.) The letter read, in part:

"Let's recognize the product for what it is: another end-run around a consultation with the veterinarian. This product isn't marketed to veterinarians; it's marketed directly to the consumer. The product's website even says that it's 'the same urine test veterinarians perform at their clinics ... at a fraction of the cost of a vet visit.' By the way, it's not the same test, as there is no correct urine-specific gravity and there is no sediment examination, both being vital pieces of information to make a correct diagnosis and formulate the appropriate treatment plan. This product is more likely to spark a conversation with Dr. Google than it is with the veterinarian."

Coincidentally, Little addressed the Petnostics conundrum at RCVS: "I think [Petnostics] is a really great example of the friction, and at the same time, a lack of a pathway for these types of innovations.” 

Petnostics was first featured on the product development TV show Shark Tank. In his lecture at RCVS, Little played an excerpt of the TV show judges reacting to the product. It boiled down to: "The problem is, my vet wants me to bring my animal in as much as I possibly can. So why is my vet gonna give me this really convenient thing so he doesn't have to charge me anymore?"

Little doesn't disagree with the Shark Tank judges' assessment-but he also doesn't believe that veterinarians can just avoid the whole thing.

"People know veterinarians have value in these equations," he says, "but they are also grappling with the fact that today, discussing technology and evolving the veterinary business model is a very difficult conversation to have. And yet the information that's being generated is going to transform the way we think about animal health-so we need to form partnerships."

Who wants change? ME!

Who wants to change? NOT ME!

The problem with new technology is that one must first accept it and then learn to use it. (Adoption-it's not just for puppies!)

First step, acceptance. Second step, adoption.

You already know why this is hard, Felsted says: "If veterinarians don't see an immediate positive impact on their practice, they tend to get scared, which conflicts with change and innovation. Much of the pushback on technologies that empower the pet owner comes from a place of fear. Change is hard. We're not well-wired for change."

Little has some ideas to flip that mentality. Here are few:

• Think like an entrepreneur. Next-gen veterinarians need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. Today, we rely on the vet school curricula to provide training for our students, but we those schools don't always update the models to reflect new technologies. Students need the freedom to fail.

• Find the early adopters. Create a network of veterinary hospitals to lower the initial investment in new ideas for everyone. How can we enable earlier collaboration with practices, so companies are designing solutions that work?

• Get help everywhere. Frame industry challenges as targeted problems whose solutions can be crowdsourced. We're smarter when everyone brainstorms.

“I think we'll look back in 15 years and say, why did we practice like this? There was so much missed potential,” Little says. But relationships, not technology, remain at the heart of his vision.

Tech that reinforces your role as the trusted partner? Imagine that.