The trends to watch for in the veterinary world

Big data, wearable tech and stem cell therapy loom large in the veterinary industry’s near future

By Don Jergler

Trend watching is must for those who run any type of business—and veterinary practices are no different. Some up-and-coming concepts and upstarts might seem disruptive and intimidating, but it’s better to be at the front end of the knowledge curve. With massive amounts of data and information at our fingertips in an increasingly high-tech world, wearable technology for monitoring pet health and stem cell therapy that promises great things for the veterinary community and for pet owners are three such trends to follow.

Big Data

Data is a powerful tool, but veterinary practice managers might be shocked to know just how much data is sitting right in front of them, according to Caleb Frankel, VMD, an emergency veterinarian at Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center in Philadelphia and director of new product development for Brief Media in Tulsa, Okla.

“Certainly, the most basic access to data that most practices have is in their own practice software,” said Dr. Frankel. “It’s just a matter of looking at it and figuring out how best to use it.”

In his report, “Polyphagic Big Data Monster,” Frankel broke down how to view big data as useful and valuable to a practice, and not intimidating. “When you learn how to train your practice’s monster, he will become a less cute, more useful version of your practice cat.”

While not a novel tool, a simple Google search offers basic, readily accessible and important data, such as information about practice marketing and client demographics, Frankel said.

Practice websites are another potentially rich source. Inputting a clinic’s website into Google Analytics shows who’s visiting the site, from where and when they visit, and how long they remain on the site.

Post useful information on your clinic’s website, such as dental hygiene tips or seasonal pest forecasts, and measure the interest in that material on Google Analytics to determine what information is (and isn’t) a hit with clients, Frankel said.

Facebook Audience Insights tracks how visitors interface with a practice’s official Facebook account. Yelp also offers a metrics function that measures the number of reviews and offers a rating distribution.

SurveyMonkey enables users to create engaging website polls and track the results, and offers plans that range from free to $99 per month for highly detailed analytics reports and other services.

Poll clients on what they expect during a visit, the services or products they want or how often they believe they should bring their pet in for a checkup, Frankel said.

Besides the potential to capture and retain more business, a big motivator for mining big data is that if your clinic isn’t doing it, someone else probably is, Frankel said.

“It’s a differentiator,” he said. “Data used to be hard and expensive to find, and it’s so ubiquitous now. If you don’t do it, your competitor down the street will.”

Wearable Tech

Wearable technology has been big with humans for years; now, more veterinary care service providers and pet owners are using such tech to monitor pet health. Current offerings can monitor body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and pH levels, and transmit that information to pet owners and veterinarians.

Proponents say it could help track health better and enable practitioners to diagnose and treat companion animals more quickly and accurately.

Wearables also are being used to feed farmers crucial information on the health and well-being of their livestock. Connected cattle might seem odd, but Austin, Texas-based VitalHerd introduced an e-pill that when fed to cows continuously transmits vital statistics, including breathing rate, heart rate, rumination rate and temperature.

At least one expert sees the growing availability of wearable tech in animal medicine as an eventual opportunity for clinics.

“Just as humans are doing more self-diagnostics and self-treatment, increasingly on the move, pet owners are beginning to do that with their pets, and not just to save money by consulting the vet only when absolutely necessary,” said Peter Harrop, DVM, Ph.D., chairman of IDTechEx, a U.K.-based provider of market research and business intelligence and events on emerging technology.

However, veterinary professionals eventually could increase their income by selling and maintaining wearable devices, as well as linking them to their traditional medical services.

According to IDTechEx’s report, “Wearable Technology for Animals 2017-2027: Technologies, Markets, Forecasts,” 300 suppliers and numerous start- ups exist worldwide that are developing wearable tech for animals, with the highest number popping up in China, where companies there are making a very basic product at a modest price. “Over the coming decade, manufacturers will rise to 500 as the value market increases more than 2.5 times,” the report stated.

Most devices already are being used in the U.S., Europe and Australia, where radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging of cattle is mandatory. RFID ear tags for cattle, followed by nonRFID collars on dogs, currently are the most popular forms of wearable electronics on animals around the world, the report stated.

The report projects to 2027: “Medical diagnostic tagging of livestock, pets and endangered species will become commonplace. The animals most likely to employ wearable electronics in volume in the next decade are those controlled by humans, notably certain livestock, work animals and pets that we identify.”

All of this growth has Harrop focused on the future potential for wearables.

“Some pet devices provide more comprehensive, more timely diagnostics and treatment than is commonly available to humans with similar conditions,” he said. “Think diagnostic patches linked to treatment patches on racehorses and dog collars monitoring many vital signs linked to diabetes.”

Stem Cell Therapy

How stem cells can benefit patients might not be completely clear, but what is clear is that they promise great potential for the veterinary community and for pet owners, according Kristina Kiefer, DVM, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor in the department of veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

“The reality is that we are still in the process of understanding how stem cell therapy affects these disease processes,” said Dr. Kiefer. “There is more and more literature to support that they improve quality of life and activity in patients receiving the treatment. I have many anecdotal stories of clients who felt that stem cell therapy improved their pet’s quality of life so much that they could spend several more months or even beyond a year with them. They felt that without the therapy, quality of life had deteriorated so much that humane euthanasia was the fairest decision for their pet.”

Much of the available information on the benefits of stem cells relies on the subjective, untrained opinions of pet owners interpreting signs and symptoms of pain, but mounting laboratory data supports the power of stem cells in controlling inflammatory and immune responses, both in culture dishes and lab animal models, according to Kiefer.

“This has been demonstrated across a huge range of disease processes that involve inflammation,” she said. “There even is evidence to support that healing and restoring damaged tissues is greater in stem cell- treated populations. In my opinion, there is enough evidence to pursue further investigation rigorously.”

One area where stem cells hold particular promise: the regeneration of tendon, ligament and joint tissues.

“Our greatest evidence is that stem cells can be stimulated to produce these tissues,” Kiefer said. “We are at the beginning stages of understanding how and to what degree stem cells impact other cells. There is no question that they influence the cells around them to accomplish a variety of tasks, and perhaps in a small part, directing resident cells to differentiate.”

The tricky part is identifying which cells produce new tissue once they are placed in the body. Tracking the actions of an individual cell once it’s mixed with other cells in the complex environment of the body is limited, Kiefer said.

That uncertainty may be limiting the number of players in this space, said Kiefer, adding that there are fewer than 10 U.S. companies that target veterinary stem cell therapy.

“The growth has slowed a little, as I think the general public is beginning to realize the complexity and knowledge yet to gain to use the therapy appropriately, and companies are recognizing the need for targeted, unique approaches,” she said.

Kiefer said that veterinarians should consider the following before working with companies that offer stem cells: what data they have provided demonstrating the efficacy and safety of their product, whether they rely on publications by other companies or groups and whether their product is an equivalent product.

“Be cautious about relying on strictly clinical trials with subjective outcome measures, or strictly basic science research data. Neither one alone is appropriate to justify client expenditure,” Kiefer said. “Regenerative medicine is the future of therapies, and we are only on the cusp of understanding and using it appropriately.”

She urged veterinarians to look out for updates and literature in this arena, and to fully support research and understanding of these modalities to provide the best care for patients and to work in partnership with advancing medical therapies for all species.

Kiefer views stem cell therapy as one more tool for providing the best medical care possible.

“It is not appropriate in all cases, and it is not a magic bullet,” she said. “But when used thoughtfully, critically and wisely, it can make the difference in our patients’ perceived quality of life.”

Find it Online

  • Access “Polyphagic Big Data Monster” at bit.ly/2qMRwRv
  • Google Analytics: analytics.google.com
  • Facebook Audience Insights: facebook.com/business/news/audience-insights
  • Yelp metrics function: biz.yelp.com
  • SurveyMonkey: surveymonkey.com
  • The University of Guelph features its Worms and Germs blog (wormsandgermsblog.com), which offers data and information sheets on a numerous species, diseases and best practices.
  • Banfield Pet Hospital’s State of Pet Health website (banfield.com/state-of-pet-health) analyzes data from nearly 2.5 million dog and 500,000 cat patients across all of its hospitals that includes reports on common conditions, chronic conditions and infectious diseases.
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