Management

The Flawed Promise of Technology in Veterinary Medicine

It seems like the topic of technology taking over the veterinary profession is everywhere we look lately. From convention keynote speakers, to online headlines it seems like the death knell is ringing for the veterinary profession if we don’t embrace technology Right This Instant!!. Yet, the contrarian in me asks “is this true?” and wants to push back on these prophecies.

Let’s look at three of the looming technologies that are threatening to swallow the profession and see what is really going on.

Smartphones

There is no doubt that our smartphones have trained us well. We read, text, watch Netflix, play games, and order anything we want online. Realistically, what we do least on our smartphones is actually phone anyone. The only person that expects to talk to me on the phone is my father, everyone else knows to text me. Our phones are the true hubs of our lives. Pretty well everything we now do ideally involves our phones. I say, ideally, because I get annoyed when I have to use a fax, or actually call someone. I would much rather look something up, click a few boxes for what I want and carry on with my day.

It is one thing to have your practice website optimized for mobile screens, but what are you doing in your practice to make your clients experience as wonderful as everything else they do on their phones? If you hate calling someone consider how your clients feel when they have to book an appointment or look up the health information of their pet. The same convenience we expect from everyday encounters with the Amazons, Apples and Netflix’s of the world should apply to our veterinary practices. Compare the experience of a prospective client hoping to find information about your practice or make an appointment that has a choice between your 2010 centric interface versus your competitor that allows them to do everything they want from their phone. It’s no contest. The easier user experience wins hands down.

We can agree that having a smartphone focused client interface is essential now and in the future.

Telemedicine

There is so much hype about the promise of tele-medicine. There seems to be a new service popping up every month in major cities. I just read about one today opening in San Francisco that is offering unlimited calls for $10/month.

There is one big thing wrong with telemedicine other than nobody can make money charging $10/month for unlimited calls. Obviously, the creators of this business have never dealt with anxious pet owners. I can see some of these vets dealing with the same people multiple times in a day. My suspicion is that this company wants to generate a huge user base and sell to someone else. That is the business model of most Silicon Valley tech start ups; gain users and sell to someone up the food stream. It doesn’t matter if they are making money or not, create a popular service and hope someone buys it.

Not making money on telemedicine is a small challenge, compared to the biggest pitfall with telemedicine and that is, unlike people, animals can’t talk. Shocking, I know. Unless someone is well trained on the client side of the call, who is going to be able to do a physical exam, listen to the heart and lungs, palpate for pain, etc. Telemedicine works well with people because there is usually a nurse, or a GP, with the patient acting as the eyes, ears and fingers of the specialist reviewing the case. Until we develop a new type of technician’s telemedicine is inherently flawed when it comes to veterinary medicine. 

AI

Artificial Intelligence is the up and coming technology with the most promise, and the least chance of succeeding in the next 10 years or so.  The promise of computer generated intelligence to solve the mysteries of veterinary medicine is so alluring. Who needs radiologists when IBM’s Watson can look at a radiograph, or MRI and make a diagnosis? Who needs a doctor to make a diagnosis when you can feed a computer information about the presenting complaint of a sick dog, or cat and out pops the diagnosis?  They are even talking about Star Trek like Tricorders that can be used to diagnose ailments at home. Why are they building all of these new vet schools? We won’t be needed soon. Right? Hardly.

What was the biggest shock we all encounters a few months out of vet school? Veterinary medicine is a people business, and animals are the excuse for us to interact with people. This was stomach churning news for us introverts that went into vet med because we couldn’t stand people. Surprise!!

So, when someone starts prattling on about the promise of AI in vet medicine ask them the following questions?

When a dog is spewing diarrhea everywhere would the client rather talk to a computer or a kind, empathetic person that can make a plan to deal with the situation?

When the decision is being made to euthanize a horse does the horse owner want to talk to a computer or a person?

When a person has bought a kitten at the Humane Society would they……. You get it.

Here is what I think. Veterinary medicine will always be a people business because we are dealing with loved ones and when it comes to emotions we want to deal with people that are sympathetic, good listeners, confident, and thorough. AI will certainly help veterinarians by sifting through all of the data and research to give us some direction when diagnosing a mystery illness, or offering treatment options, but it can never replace the special relationships that clients and patients have with their vets.

Where does that leave us in the new frontier of technology? Smartphones are altering how we interact with businesses and each other. Our vet practices absolutely need to adapt to meet client expectations, so the more we can offer client experiences through smartphones the better. Telemedicine will require a shift in how we use technicians before this becomes mainstream. Great for remote places, or if a DVM wants input from a specialist.  It’s potentially a niche offering. Sorry, all you can eat buffet style telemedicine companies.

Finally, Artificial Intelligence and the promise of instant diagnoses. Like any service that has at it’s core fluctuating and surprising emotions, people aren’t going anywhere. AI is great for projecting stock returns, thus the popularities of ETFs, but it can’t match the nuances and variabilities of veterinary examinations, palpations, diagnoses and client communication and management.

So next time you hear someone go on and on about the riches in technology for veterinarians ask yourself one question. “Will a pet owner prefer to deal with a kind, empathetic, competent person or a machine when their loved animal is sick?”. If the situation demands a personal touch, then technology is not the answer.

What do you think on the subject? Is technology the savior of vet medicine or is it a bunch of hype. We would love to hear from you so leave a comment.

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