11 technologies veterinary practices can adopt today
Software, applications key to efficient, accessible, high-quality patient care
By Malinda Larkin and Dr. Sandra Lefebvre
These are exciting times when it comes to advancements in veterinary medicine. An explosion in new technologies, coupled with improvements in longer-standing ones, means that busy veterinary teams have valuable help when it comes to delivering high-quality patient care, reaching more patients, and establishing strong client relationships.
New devices and software promise to help enhance patient care and monitoring, ease workloads, improve workflows, meet or exceed client expectations, and more. Some technologies offer a suite of useful features.
Here is an overview of 11 technologies or technologic features that can give your practice an essential leg up, freeing staff to focus on what only they can do.
Practice information management systems: Practice information management systems (PIMS), also known as veterinary practice management software, have come a long way in functionality and ease of use since electronic medical records were first introduced a few decades ago. Modern PIMS have become a practice staple, well worth the initial setup and onboarding—especially for practices that haven’t yet made the move from paper records to digital.
The best system for a particular practice depends on a variety of factors, including affordability, customizability, the quality and reliability of internet connectivity, and the practice’s specific needs. Basic PIMS may involve software installation on practice computers that are connected via a shared server or database where records are stored. Alternatively, a practice may use the services of a cloud provider, enabling the system to be easily accessed and updated from various devices.
When used as intended, PIMS can standardize and enhance record keeping, reduce recording errors, boost operational efficiency and revenue, enable measurement and improvement of business and patient metrics, bolster veterinary team engagement, improve patient outcomes and client satisfaction, and more.
The breadth of available features may surprise you. PIMS platforms may offer some or all of these capabilities:
Electronic medical records
Invoicing and accounting functions
Payment processing or portals
Integration with in-clinic diagnostic equipment or external laboratories, or with other technologies
Client dashboards or smartphone applications that allow clients to view medical records, invoices, or test results
Two-way client communication (e.g., text or email)
Electronic signing of estimates and other documents
Internal communication applications
Financial or business reports (e.g., numbers of active clients or revenue generated by a provider or over certain time periods)
Telehealth: Responsible adoption of telehealth is critical to improving continuity of care and client compliance, boosting the efficiency and success of practices, and meeting the expectations of clients and the needs of patients now and into the future. Fortunately, several tools are available to help incorporate telehealth into everyday practice easily and sustainably.
For example, tools such as email, text messaging, and video call applications can be used to efficiently communicate across practice teams and with clients. The same goes for primary care veterinarians connecting with providers of specialized services for real-time support, which has the added bonus of allowing rapid sharing of medical records, high-quality radiologic images, and other test results.
For video calls, practices need devices with large enough screens to see patients clearly, a space free of background noise and distractions, and adequate internet speed on both ends of the call. For other types of communication, clients may need to attach videos, high-resolution images, or detailed records. In all cases, it’s important to make sure that such interactions are recorded in the patient’s medical record and that communication systems are secure and adequately protect client confidentiality.
Veterinarians can provide telehealth using technologies that may already exist in their practice, such as smartphones and general audio and videoconferencing platforms. More sophisticated telehealth software options or platforms are available that integrate well with—or are already included in— PIMS platforms. Features to look for include live video appointments, two-way messaging, and the ability to archive messages and video appointments. Seek features that allow automatic tracking, billing, and collecting payment on sessions.
By providing telehealth services, practices also are able to charge for their time and knowledge in situations that previously went uncompensated, and they’re able to keep clients who might otherwise turn to direct-to-consumer veterinary telehealth companies for their perceived convenience.
Online scheduling: Nowadays, clients expect convenience when booking appointments. Online veterinary appointment scheduling systems let animal owners schedule and change their appointments as they desire, 24/7.
Going a step further, some online scheduling systems allow veterinary practices to create a waitlist to backfill last-minute openings and cancellations. When an opening occurs, the system immediately alerts the first person on the list via group email or SMS message.
The benefits can justify the initial investment in time and money. Cancelations and no-show appointments can tax revenue and productivity. Online scheduling systems support maximum fill of available appointment slots, help reduce phone calls, eliminate double bookings, and allow reception staff to concentrate on clients in the waiting room or on the phone.
Practice-associated online pharmacies: The notion of having your own online pharmacy isn’t new, but recent AVMA survey data indicate some practices have yet to take advantage. If this includes your practice, substantial opportunities exist to capture revenues otherwise lost to online retailers, and reduce time and resources spent processing prescription verification requests from third parties—for little reward.
You don’t need to start from scratch. Third-party vendors can provide prescription management or virtual storefronts, so that you can offer clients the convenience they have come to expect.
Social media and marketing: Social media has become a critical means for veterinary practices to attract and retain clients and to foster a great reputation. But doing this well requires constant monitoring and responding to comments, posting new content, and measuring your success.
Various technologies are available to assist. Some technologies help with soliciting and managing client feedback by automatically inviting clients via email or text to comment on their experience following their appointment. This allows practices to discover proactively things their clients did or didn’t like, and the chance to directly contact unhappy clients. Once feedback is submitted, clients can be automatically invited to post a review on selected review platforms.
For those who would like to post more on social media, but just don’t have the time, there are social media management platforms that allow scheduling of posts ahead of time on the networks of your choice.
Most of these technologies also allow monitoring of trends, to gauge the impact of your efforts.
Controlled drug management: Tracking controlled substances can be a daunting task but one that requires accuracy and adherence to Drug Enforcement Administration or state reporting requirements. There’s a definite need for technologies that streamline this workflow.
Paper-based controlled substance logs have long been the standard. But these tracking sheets can be lost, mishandled, or ruined. Plus, they are prone to gaps in entries, whether due to someone waiting until the end of the day to write everything down or simply forgetting to do so.
Cloud-based controlled drug tracking platforms aim to help veterinary teams more easily, accurately, and efficiently manage their controlled drug inventory, in compliance with applicable laws. These platforms allow users to record, retrieve, and produce reports on up-to-date information anywhere they are, reducing time spent on manual daily line entries, stock counts, and reconciliations. Several are designed specifically for veterinary practices.
Additional features vary. Some platforms let teams scan the coded drug label with a smartphone to immediately log the drug, tracking even the GPS location of all activity. Others may include integration with PIMS, including automatic checking of platform entries against PIMS records to eliminate double entries.
Artificial intelligence for routine tasks: Artificial intelligence (AI) has potential to transform veterinary practice, starting with making routine tasks more efficient.
A multifunctional example is digital platforms that employ an AI chat-bot to streamline workflows and help manage client communications. Such platforms offer automated features to assist clients in activities such as booking appointments, getting answers to common questions, messaging with the veterinary team, or refilling prescriptions. They can also help the team by collecting patient histories before appointments and follow-up information after appointments, or providing automated, custom responses to online reviews. Note that team members are still needed to assist and review AI-generated responses to ensure accuracy as the technology continues to develop.
Another useful tool is AI-based dictation software. For example, rather than waiting until the end of the workday to record their examination findings, veterinarians can recite them as they go, and have the software simultaneously record them in the appropriate record. Again, it is important to review the generated record for accuracy.
AI for diagnosis: AI also has immense potential in the clinical aspects of veterinary practice. Already, AI—including “machine learning”—is being used in veterinary medicine to detect, delineate, or classify certain features in radiograph, ultrasound, CT, and MRI images. As explained in a March 2022 JAVMA article on AI, this is possible because much of the data, including the related reports, are in digital form.
And it seems we’re just getting started. Examples of other potential applications to detect, predict, and classify disease include AI analysis of photographs, videos, pathology slides, or wearable technologies data. As such applications are adopted, it’s important to consider the patient populations on which they were originally based, and whether those populations are similar to those for which the applications will be used.
It's also important that veterinarians use AI-based diagnostic tools as supplements—not replacements—to their own diagnostic workups and interpretations. Like other diagnostic tests, these tools may yield false-positive or false-negative results.
Digital radiography: For practices remaining bound to analog (non-digital) radiography, and with AI applications in mind, now is a good time to consider moving fully to digital. Although the cost of digital equipment and its maintenance may be a deterrent, advantages abound in terms of productivity and patient care. Examples include ease of use, instant image acquisition (with no need for film, chemicals, or darkroom processing), superior image quality, fewer retakes, less radiation exposure to patients and staff, less space needed, seamless integration of images into electronic medical records, faster turnaround for radiographic consultations, and suitability for interpretation by AI diagnostic tools.
For use in the field, portable digital radiography units share these advantages, with the added bonus of being easier to transport and carry.
3D printing: Use of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is not yet widespread in veterinary medicine, but this soon may change because of its many potential applications.
To date, there have been reports of 3D printing being used in the development of custom prosthetics, orthotics, and implants for animals. The process has been used for everything from replacing a portion of the skull in a dog to creating a prosthetic beak for a Great Hornbill. In addition to the obvious benefit to patients, creating 3D replicas of the body parts of specific patients can aid planning and preparation for complex surgeries, potentially resulting in shorter surgery times and better outcomes.
Before these innovations, creating implants and prosthetics for animals had been expensive and time consuming. But 3D printing makes it easier, cheaper, and faster to design these devices, which also fit better. That’s because the scanning software takes highly accurate measurements, models the design, and builds from there.
The good news is you don’t need to buy a 3D printer or learn how to use it. Multiple companies provide these services, working with veterinarians to design custom products specific to their patients’ needs. And 3D printing isn’t limited to implants and prosthetics. Other offerings include surgical incision guides, scaffolds for bone replacement and tissue engineering, customized surgical instruments, and more—in various types of medical-grade materials.
Quantified health or “wearable” devices: Many of us have used wearable technologies such as fitness trackers or smartwatches ourselves, so it’s no surprise that adaptations of those for animals would follow. Beyond the novelty aspect for pet owners, well-designed and scientifically validated wearables have great potential to improve delivery of veterinary care, telling veterinarians what animals and their owners can’t, and facilitating individualized care.
Medical uses of smartphones, smartwatches, and related applications—most designed for humans—have been investigated in several animal species for everything from ECG to gait analysis, with mixed results. As demand for veterinary uses increases, so may the accuracy and reliability of these applications. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration does not require premarket approval for medical devices intended for solely animal use and leaves the responsibility for assuring the devices are safe and effective to the manufacturer or distributor.
In production medicine, wireless biosensor technology already plays an important role by providing behavioral and physiological data—such as time spent eating, ruminating, lying, and standing—for individual animals. This information can then be aggregated and used to monitor herd health.
In small animal health, various wearable technologies are available, with capabilities extending far beyond the Holter monitors traditionally used to record ECG activity. Features vary by product, and may include continuous, noninvasive monitoring of vital parameters; activity level (including sleeping habits); or certain behaviors like shaking, scratching, or food consumption.
These devices may take the form of a collar, collar attachment, or halter. They may be intended primarily for owners (e.g., to alert them when veterinary care may be needed) or for veterinarians (e.g., to monitor response to treatment). They may pair wirelessly with a mobile app, web platform, or data cloud service. Plus, some wearable devices can be used along with other connected tools like pet feeders to gain a more comprehensive assessment of an animal’s health status, including feed intake.
Wearable medical devices are becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, but still have some hurdles to overcome. If veterinarians are to rely on them for diagnostic purposes, the devices need to be evaluated for accuracy and reliability in the species of intended use. Further, ideally the acquired data would be importable to or integrated with veterinary practice management software.
A version of this story appears in the November 2023 print issue of JAVMA