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Innovation at the heart of the profession
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Three vets pitched their ideas for innovations to change veterinary practice to a judging panel last month in a bid to win the Vet Record Innovation Award. Here Kathryn Clark discovers more about them and their novel ideas.

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‘I’m really smiling!’

That was Carol Dobson’s response when asked how she felt about being one of the three shortlisted finalists for the Vet Record Innovation Award.

Dobson, a general practitioner and sole principal of Craigpark Veterinary Centre in Glasgow, submitted her idea for ‘VetCard’, which she describes as ‘a flexible fusion of a savings plan, payment plan, debit card and credit card’ intended to help clients fund the cost of veterinary services.

She was joined on the shortlist by veterinary anaesthetist Alastair Mair, who went on to win the award, and sheep veterinary consultant Fiona Lovatt. Both were equally pleased about making it to the final judging, which took place at the Animal Health Investment Europe conference in London last month.

‘It was a shock to be shortlisted,’ admitted Mair, who entered Vetnapp, a mobile device application (app) that he has designed to help create digital anaesthetic records. ‘Many innovative products and ideas – especially using mobile device technology – are currently being developed for the veterinary market.’

Meanwhile, Lovatt, who created Flock Health Clubs – proactive, vet-facilitated, sheep farmer business groups – said she was ‘really delighted’ to have made it to the final. ‘It’s recognition and encouragement to all the sheep vets out there who are running Flock Health Clubs. There are plenty of generally unsung vet heroes and heroines who are working away providing a good service for their sheep farmer clients and it is awesome for this to be recognised.’

The Vet Record Innovation Award acknowledges excellence and innovation within the veterinary world and celebrates ideas that have changed or improved an aspect of veterinary practice, or that have the potential to do so. The three shortlisted innovations all fulfil this criterion, albeit in different ways.

Celebrating innovation: (from left) Fiona Lovatt, creator of Flock Health Clubs; Alastair Mair, who developed Vetnapp; head judge Lord Trees; and Carol Dobson, whose idea is VetCard

Unlike Vetnapp and Flock Health Clubs, VetCard is still at the concept stage. Dobson explains that her idea was borne out of clients asking her for an easy solution to paying for veterinary services. ‘Pet insurance, while being extremely useful, appears to have reached a limit, and is not universally accepted, with some clients drifting away from the pet insurance offerings,’ she says. ‘Many clients want an additional or alternative solution.’

She sees VetCard primarily working as a savings scheme, with clients paying an initial set-up fee and then contributing fixed monthly amounts via direct debit. The savings accumulated could be accessed immediately to pay for any service a practice provides, whether veterinary care or sundries such as food.

Adding a credit option to the card would ease client worries about suddenly having to find the funds to pay for emergency veterinary care – and because the direct debit remains in place, the credit would gradually be paid off.

VetCard will help clients with financial management and bring peace of mind to pet owners

‘VetCard will help clients with financial management and bring peace of mind to pet owners,’ Dobson says. ‘It could be used for fees that fall below insurance excess amounts, to cover the variable excesses for insured pets, to pay for foods and non-clinical items, to fund preventive health care for those pets not on a care plan, and can be used as a credit facility for when unexpected fees are incurred due to illness or injury.’

She suggests that VetCard would be ideal for owners who cannot afford insurance premiums, those with uninsurable pets or elderly pets for which insurance premiums have become prohibitive, and households with multiple pets, as the savings could be used for any animal that needed care. She also envisages the card being accepted in multiple practices, not just a client’s ‘home’ practice, meaning that, for example, should veterinary care be required while a client is on holiday with their pet, the practice providing that care could be assured it will be paid for its services.

‘It is more flexible than insurance and a care plan, but still works alongside these products,’ she adds.

She also believes firmly in the concept of ‘mutuality’, acknowledging that all parties involved in VetCard need to see some benefit. For vets, this would lie in facilitating the payment of fees and reducing the number of unpaid bills, but the card could also strengthen the bond between practices and their clients, smoothing the payment process and perhaps encouraging purchases that clients would otherwise make elsewhere. She suggests that participating practices could, for example, also be rewarded with reduced fees on card transactions.

However, acknowledging that ‘I’m a vet, not a banker’, she realises that she’ll need help to take VetCard from concept to reality.

‘I’ve pitched my idea to a bank and to various industry representatives, but it requires the expertise of financial people to aid the birth,’ she concludes.

Alastair Mair has developed Vetnapp, a veterinary anaesthetic chart app

In contrast, Mair’s winning innovation, Vetnapp, is already available and proving successful, having been downloaded almost 1000 times since it was first released.

‘In veterinary medicine, the majority of anaesthetic records are still handwritten,’ says Mair, who works as a veterinary anaesthesia specialist at Willows Veterinary Centre and Referral Service in Solihull. ‘Handwritten records are often incomplete, illegible, easily lost and time consuming to locate for audit or research purposes.’

Carol Dobson (pictured right) has come up with the concept of VetCard, to help clients fund the cost of veterinary services

Vetnapp aims to overcome these disadvantages by allowing information to be captured digitally on a mobile device such as a tablet. Patient details are entered together with information about the procedures performed, drugs administered, monitoring equipment and physiological parameters such as heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure. Any complications encountered can also be recorded. Data entry is designed to be easy thanks to the use of sliders and drop-down boxes, but some fields are mandatory in an attempt to ensure that records are more complete than they perhaps are currently.

Mair came up with the idea for Vetnapp five years ago, while working at the University of Sydney. He developed a prototype for the app with the help of a student in the IT department there. Three years and lots of trialling and testing later, he approached an app development company to create versions for both the iOS and Android platforms – a process that took more than a year.

‘One of the hardest parts was deciding when to launch the app,’ he says. ‘You just have to realise that it will never be perfect for all users and that modifications will be required in the future.’

The final chart produced by Vetnapp resembles a traditional paper anaesthetic record and can be converted to PDF format to be attached to a patient’s records. This reduces paper usage in practice – an environmental benefit – and lessens the risk of records going astray.

Vetnapp can be used to record parameters for any species and, since its launch, it has been downloaded by users across the world. However, Mair feels that the app may currently be more suitable for specialist anaesthetists since some of its data inputs relate to monitoring equipment not routinely used in general practice.

‘I may, in future, create a version where you can select the parameters you would like to measure,’ he says.

Also in his plans for the future is the creation of a database to facilitate the large-scale collection of veterinary anaesthetic data. He envisages a cloud-based server storing anonymised data collected by the app, allowing analysis of details such as the most common procedures performed, the drugs used for premedication, induction and maintenance of anaesthesia, the monitoring equipment used and complications occurring during anaesthesia.

One of the main benefits of the app is that it can be downloaded worldwide

‘One of the main benefits of the app is that it can be downloaded worldwide. This means that geographical differences can be compared,’ he says.

Mair says he was very happy to have won the award. Looking to the future, he commented: ‘My vision for Vetnapp is to create a large database for anaesthesia-related research to look at things like what kind of drugs do we use, what is the most common complication, and then to compare countries and see how they differ.’

Flock Health Clubs are the brainchild of Fiona Lovatt and aim to bring vets and sheep farmers closer together

Lovatt, the third finalist, runs Flock Health Ltd, a sheep veterinary consultancy based in County Durham. She came up with the idea for Flock Health Clubs seven years ago, following the publication of some research that she describes as ‘depressing’. This identified a downward spiral in which vets did not believe that sheep farmers would pay for veterinary services or collect the flock data needed to allow proactive veterinary input, while sheep farmers believed that vets were not interested in their sheep or able to provide a cost-effective service that was of value to their flock.

‘I thought “It can’t be this bad”,’ she says. ‘I started looking for a silver lining.’

That silver lining lay in research findings that identified an agreement that farmers with small flocks could work together with a vet and that they could all benefit financially.

And so the concept of Flock Health Clubs was born.

Basically, a Flock Health Club is a subscription-based business group of sheep farmers brought together by their vet who facilitates discussions and arranges farm visits and practical sessions. Members of the club share their experiences and benchmark key performance indicators; they also benefit from peer-to-peer learning.

In turn, vets who set up Flock Health Clubs demonstrate their active interest in their sheep farmer clients and their flocks, and in the potential for improved preventive health care.

‘This has been the catalyst to improved relationships between vets and sheep farmers,’ says Lovatt.

Flock Health Clubs are now found across the UK, and even further afield, with Lovatt aware of clubs in Norway and Canada. A survey in 2017 found 56 clubs operating and more are opening all the time – three clubs in Hampshire, Suffolk and Gloucestershire ran their inaugural meetings in January this year. ‘Sheep farmers are now pressurising practices that do not have a club to start one up,’ she says.

Not one of the farmers could identify a disadvantage in belonging to a Flock Health Club

A recent evaluation of the impact of Flock Health Clubs, carried out by the Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe project, confirmed their value – all of the 15 vets interviewed said that members of their Flock Health Club were more likely to contact them, to actively seek advice, and were keen to improve and engage. Meanwhile, 67 per cent of the 27 farmers interviewed reported improvements in their relationship with their vet and an increase in the likelihood of them calling for advice. Not one of the farmers could identify a disadvantage in belonging to a Flock Health Club.

There is no definitive formula for a Flock Health Club: vets and sheep farmers are encouraged to set up clubs ‘in their own way, finding local solutions to their local situations’, says Lovatt. ‘This means that although we have supported and encourage the sharing of best practice, we don’t actually have any control in how they do this.’

However, key to the success of all the clubs is their subscription-based format. ‘The clubs are financially self-sufficient, with an economic value placed on the veterinary input and expertise,’ she explains. ‘The farmer members receive cost-effective sheep veterinary advice that is affordable because it is shared with other club members. The monthly club subscriptions provide a steady income to the practice, while the vets are well placed to develop further input into these sheep flocks.’

Ultimately, Lovatt explains, improving the relationship between farmers and vets has wider benefits.

‘As the UK leaves the EU and agriculture moves away from payment support, there is a need for farms to become self-reliant, with increased productivity and high levels of animal health and welfare, so that they can supply quality products for both home and export markets while ensuring good environmental stewardship.

‘Prevention of endemic diseases improves welfare, increases productivity, helps tackle antimicrobial resistance and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from farming. Close relationships between sheep farmers and their veterinary surgeons are key to achieving these needs in the current challenging times.’

Lovatt is proud to be shortlisted for the Vet Record Innovation Award, but modest about her achievements with Flock Health Clubs: ‘I just had the idea,’ she says. ‘The success is down to all the practising sheep vets out there who are working away – often they may be the only sheep vet within the whole practice and they could really do with encouragement.

‘A couple of years ago, when someone asked me whether to set up a Flock Health Club, I would say that we’ve made it work in a couple of places and it was worth a try. Now I am much more confident and able to categorically recommend setting up a club as a proven and really positive way to improve veterinary engagement with sheep farmers.’ ●

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