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Is it time to embrace change and shape the future of animal care?

The potential impact of new technologies on animal health and welfare was discussed at the first RCVS Innovation Symposium

Jennifer Parker
28 November 2017, at 11:53am

In the UK, the faint buzz about new technologies and services that might alter daily life for those in the veterinary profession is often drowned out by louder cries of cautiousness and scepticism. The RCVS Innovation Symposium, held at The Shard on 20th September, offered a timely opportunity to discuss what the future of the profession might look like and, importantly, why these changes should be embraced, not feared – and certainly not ignored.

Professor Richard Susskind, the keynote speaker at the event, warned that technological advancement is going to have a significant influence on the professions. Consider that 60 million disputes are resolved by eBay every year – not in a courtroom, but by online dispute resolution. 

In education, over the space of a single year, more people
signed up to Harvard’s online courses than had attended
the physical university since its foundation. These are just
a couple of the sobering examples given by Richard to
demonstrate the reality of the situation. 

Like it or not,
technology is going to
continue to change our
lives – and the health
sector is no exception.
In September, it was
announced that artificial
intelligence can diagnose
Alzheimer’s disease
in humans almost a
decade before symptoms appear. A system has
also been developed
that can outperform
dermatologists in
diagnosing myeloma.

As systems become increasingly capable, we may not require as many people with such high levels of training. Richard described two futures for technology: one in which technology is used to optimise the service that has been given for years, and the second in which technology “fundamentally challenges, changes and replaces the traditional way of working”; this future, he suggested, is what the professions must be prepared for. 

How might technology change veterinary practice?

Computers will become better at some aspects of a veterinarian’s work than humans are. This may sound daunting, but embracing technology could bring about some almighty benefits to everybody in practice.

Technology could save time and resources and in turn, more animals could be reached and a higher quality of health and welfare offered; moreover, it could initiate a much-improved work-life balance for the veterinarian.

Adam Little, director of Veterinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, thinks the next decade will see more change in the vet space than the last 50 years. These changes, he says, will fall into four key categories: 

1. Our evolving relationship with pets.
2. The empowered customer.
3. Innovation at the fringes.
4. The profession’s response. 

Adam noted that we value our pets more than ever before and are spending much more money on them. We’re already using devices to improve our relationship with our pets, and this is likely to increase.

Technology will unlock new models of service delivery, he said, and student vets and vet nurses will have new, tailored ways to learn. He also envisions client education evolving into a more robust, connected experience.

PayPal, AirBnb and Uber were all illegal when they started. Innovation happens at the fringes because these companies do things that big companies can’t or won’t do. The profession is responding to changing expectations, he said. In 2016, a record number of health investments were made and start-ups born.

Bigger companies are making moves too, providing, for example, online services, pet activity trackers, mobile services and Uber-type models for vets.

In their whirlwind talk, Dr Greg Dickens and Dr Guen Bradbury from Innovia described what the future could look like in veterinary practice in 5-10 years. Their list of achievable innovations included, to name just a few, strain gauges on surgical needles, teleconsultation appointments (aided by gait-tracking software), augmented reality glasses (with thermographic imaging), drug-carrying drones, disease trend-tracking software, and computer-derived surgery risk analyses based on genomics data.

How should the profession make the jump?

Adam Little’s advice to the veterinary profession is to “generate awareness, develop training in areas of rapid growth, upgrade existing practices and unlock new models of care.”

There will undoubtedly be hurdles to overcome along the way and some of these were raised during the question session. For example, it might seem unlikely that all farm animals will be monitored remotely using 5G when vets struggle to get even the faintest mobile signal on many farms in the UK. There are still question marks over who will own the ‘big data’ and how it will be used, though the panel seemed confident that solutions to these issues would be available in the not-too-distant future.

There will also be a whole host of discussions to be had by the RCVS with regards to regulation; for the profession to successfully embrace new technology, the law must keep up. Anthony Roberts, Director of Leadership and Innovation at RCVS, commented, “Technologies are developing exponentially, new business models are emerging and there is huge investment into the animal health sector. As a regulator, the RCVS must have an appropriate system in place that will be able to adapt in this very fast moving, volatile and uncertain market.”

The profession must be proactive and get involved with innovation. To do this, the RCVS has launched Vivet (www.vivet.org.uk) - an initiative designed to help the profession stay up to date and at the centre of innovation in animal health. It will encourage veterinary professionals to recognise and seize the opportunities innovation can bring to improve the way they work, how they offer services to clients and how they can access new markets. Online resources, blogs, case studies and events will be used to encourage innovators and support professionals engaging with innovation.