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Adapting to technology

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THIS year's RCVS Day, held at the Royal Institute of British Architects on July 15, provided a fascinating glimpse into the future. First, in an address to the meeting, the RCVS chief executive, Nick Stace, offered some thought-provoking comments on the changing role of the College as a regulator in a world in which, partly as a result of social media and other technologies, clients increasingly seemed to expect 100 per cent perfection from their veterinary surgeon when this was something no medical professional could provide. To an extent, his comments about new technologies were reinforced in a talk later during the day from the guest speaker, Adam Little, a veterinarian based in Ontario, Canada, who runs a consultancy called Exponential Vet. Dr Little discussed the impact of ‘disruptive’ technologies on the veterinary profession, suggesting that, as things stand, it is ill prepared for what they might bring.

Referring to the impact of Uber on taxi firms and Airbnb on hotel businesses, Mr Stace remarked, ‘You don't have to be a futurologist to know that the digital disruption that has hit every sector we can think of will also hit the veterinary sector . . . Already in the USA, Skype-based consultations are taking place and wearable technologies for animals are transforming the information vets can use to diagnose.’ There was, he pointed out, potential for harm in this, but there were also opportunities to advance animal welfare and for more animals to receive better care. However, it would not be easy for the RCVS to regulate, particularly if services were offered across borders, with vets in other countries offering services directly to consumers in the UK.

‘To think that just a few years ago we [the RCVS] limited the size of the brass plates that vets could hang by their doors advertising their practices,’ said Mr Stace. ‘Now we live in an age where global veterinary services can be broadcast into everyone's living rooms.’

Change would also come through growing consumer expectations, ‘where already through social media, individuals in the professions are publicly named, shamed and famed by consumer experiences’. It would also come through changing ownership models, ‘where large-scale consolidations will happen and will affect the role of every vet and vet nurse in this country’.

Referring to today's blame culture, Mr Stace remarked: ‘There is an unrealistic demand on the medical and caring professions that they will get it right 100 per cent of the time, that perfectionism is all that is acceptable. While it is understandable that people might hope for perfectionism, we are all human and it is unrealistic. We need a frank debate about this because currently the issue of perfectionism distorts expectations; it almost certainly distorts professional behaviour and it can lead to unnecessary fitness to practise cases at the RCVS. The fact that someone does something wrong is not a disciplinary issue; the fact that someone may feel they have to cover it up, is.’

All this was putting greater strain on vets and veterinary nurses, and one way in which the RCVS could help was by being much clearer about the kind of culture it would like to see. This, he explained, would be a culture that encouraged members of the veterinary team to learn from each other, to learn from their mistakes, to engage clients in the challenges of what they do, be open when things go wrong, manage public expectations and move away from a blame culture.

‘You might think it counterintuitive for a regulator to say to its profession that it's OK to make mistakes, but that is the message we need to get out there,’ said Mr Stace. ‘You might also think it counterintuitive for the regulator not to fight against changes in the marketplace that make regulating that market tougher, but we know you cannot resist change and we would like to be part of creating change that works.’

Discussing the impact of developments in digital technology in more specific terms, Dr Little drew attention to, among other things, the potential of wearable technologies (such as smart collars) and other devices (such as smart litter trays) to provide data allowing the health of pets to be continually monitored, offering new opportunities for preventative care. Further opportunities existed in veterinary pathology where, for example, images could be transmitted instantly and algorithms could be used to help interpret slides. In an increasingly interconnected world, there was an opportunity for vets to help develop and make use of such tools, and to offer personalised, precision care to an extent that previously could hardly have been dreamt of. Dr Little suggested, however, that, so far, the veterinary profession had ‘not done the internet well’; instead of seeing digital technology as causing problems, it should think about how it could work with it to improve the services it provided and develop new approaches accordingly.

Similar sentiments were expressed at a meeting held at the University of Surrey earlier this year, during a seminar to mark the launch of vHive, a multidisciplinary centre which aspires to promote the development and adoption of digital innovation in animal health. A joint venture involving the university and the animal health company Zoetis, the new centre aims to act as a science and technology business hub and develop collaborative projects on applying digital technology to improve animal health, and help vets and farmers make more data-driven decisions. The impression from that meeting was that the veterinary profession will not be put out of business by new technologies. However, its activities will certainly be affected by them and, as always, it will need to adapt.

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