Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Utopian Feline Future

I must take a moment and share something wonderful with you all. The other week I was reading Vetted, a daughter publication of the DVM360 empire. The October 2016 issue was devoted in part to veterinarians providing their "predictions" for the future of the vet industry. There were the standard  "new technologies will save the world" and "cure for cancer" hopefuls, but, amidst the well-meaning tropes, I found a gem.

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, feline specialist, and owner of two feline specific hospitals in Oregon and California. Her entry is provided below (a more extended version is available online):

"As Northern American cities continue to grow and urban migration increases, the conflict between demand for feline companionship and well-meaning efforts to sterilize cats will escalate. Chemical sterilization techniques will improve and fewer colonies of cats will be found. This will create a shortage of cats just when people want to adopt. Recognizing this, veterinarians, geneticists, ethologists and other scientists will start working to build a population of cats that people want. The protection of cats will become a worldwide undertaking with every country working to create a healthy gene pool of cats for whom homes can easily be found. And that's how cats will be responsible for world peace."

I love it. No, I love YOU, Dr. Colleran. You have created the perfect blend of scientific fact with socioeconomic observations combined with a healthy dose of full-hearted, well-intentioned assumptions and voila: the future seems bright.

Thank you, Dr. Colleran, for providing us with a utopian feline future.
Stay tuned for the next post on the first Monday of January. Until then: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Vet

I'm a bit of a Luddite, I confess. My iPhone and iPod are out of date and I just don't get Snap Chat. I always prefer a map over innately trusting GPS directions and I can't quite trust making a bank deposit on my phone yet.

But I'm not immune to the fact that there's a lot of cool stuff out there. Even I can get excited about the latest gadgets for writers (although you will have to pry my Moleskine notebook out of my cold, dead hands). And of course the world of veterinary medicine is chugging right along with new medical advances at an impressive rate: 3D printing and micro fracture detection in horse limbs using acoustic sensors are just a few of the newest and brightest technologies in our industry's future.

I hadn't really given a lot of thought to the way technology and vet med can combine in creative ways, although this is really the way scientific discovery begins, right? So you might imagine how delighted I was to talk to Dr. Doug Thal, equine practitioner and practice owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Doug has spent the last five years developing an app for horse owners called the Horse Side Vet Guide. A writer himself, Doug began by compiling his knowledge and writings of equine ailments to form something practical for use on the farm. Here's the story of how he did it.
Horse Side Vet Guide app
In practice for almost 25 years, Doug was frustrated. "Over time, I have become frustrated by misunderstandings that have arisen from poor information and poor decisions that horse owners make based on something a friend said or something they picked up from the internet," he told me. "I've written articles on horse health and given seminars--all the usual stuff. I felt in the moment they were helpful to the people who read the articles or attended the seminars. But really, I didn't feel it was enough. The people who needed that information the most weren't reading and weren't in attendance."

Doug had at his disposal more than sixty of his own articles and started thinking about how to better organize them to make them more accessible. "In 2011 I got my first smart phone and was amazed," he says. "It dawned on me that here was all this power on your belt, all this access. How could it be used to change how people use information to help their horses? I decided at that point, I was going to make an app."
Doug Thal, DVM
Doug started as anyone should start an overwhelming task (and writing an app from scratch on the entirety of equine ambulatory medicine is about as overwhelming as you can get, in my opinion) and it reminds me of a rhetorical quote: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But it's not just about taking it step by step. It's thinking about the overall framework.

"The structure I created was based on a horse owner's observations," Doug explains. "It was this idea that really any information accessed needs to start with what the horse owner observes. That sort of approach really seemed to be lacking anywhere else. What people do is go out and see that their horse has a runny eye. Then they'll go back to their computer or ask their friend about it. And the response they'll get is: oh yeah, I had that once and I just squirted some saline in there and it went away. And that might be true, but the question remains: what's causing the runny eye? For some reason, many times that question is lost or disregarded."

Doug's app is based on this informational organization. "I thought of every single observation I've ever heard a horse owner describe to me and started writing," he says. This process evolved from writing in Microsoft Word to File Maker, and then putting the database online. From website to app took even more time and outside help. "I had a strong idea of what I wanted the app to look like but it turned out conceptually, I just was pretty far off," Doug says. "We ended up going through five different app development teams over the course of about two years until finally in late 2013, we launched an ISO app and two months later launched an Android app."

He had arrived.

"We went through an unbelievable adventure just trying to get to that release," says Doug. "And when we did finally get it out, we were proud of it."

Doug reports that his app has been well received and has been downloaded in 70 different countries. His Facebook page is one of the best ways he's been able to get the word out and engage with folks and herein lies the next challenge: marketing. "Marketing is always a challenge," Doug acknowledges. "It's like, ok, we've made this incredible product. I naively thought that you make this great product for only $5 and every horse owner is going to buy it and boy, was I in for a shock. It's just amazing what it takes to market something like that." The key, though, is Doug's belief in his own work. "I'm trying to get it out there because I so believe in it."

Perhaps most interesting is that Doug describes how the app development process has made him become a better veterinarian. "It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal," he says. "I feel like I'm more in touch with what my clients really need and I'm better able to really dive into that. I feel like it's helped me analytically."

"It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal."

I'll jump in here for a moment to clarify some points. The point of Horse Side Vet Guide is not to diagnose a medical problem. That's a vet's job. We all know that. Instead, this app is meant to help owners work through the problem they are seeing in front of them. Step by step, the app takes the owner through identifying what they are seeing, how to determine if it's an emergency, and what it is they need to describe to their veterinarian.

"I wanted it to be an endeavor that vets would feel ok about," Doug says. "I was very careful to make the clear message that this was not encouraging people to diagnose their own animals." Doug says this very fact does frustrate some users. "They say, well, what good is this if I don't have a diagnosis. The answer is you can't have a diagnosis, you shouldn't have a diagnosis." That's for the vet to decide.

Horse Side Vet Guide is always evolving and constantly expanding. Both the website and app update constantly and Doug can--and does--add new information. "I can change something right now and when you open the app, you'll immediately get the updated version," he says. There is also a feature that allows customer feedback if they receive a null search. Doug has added more than one hundred other data points from customer feedback.

Doug says he's also never wanted this app to contain only his thoughts. Gradually, he is adding contributor vets. These folks review his work and there's the hope that soon other vets will write their own content. "It really is supposed to be providing the best information to horse owners, not just my own stuff," he says.

Until next month--happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.