Richard Williams

Field microscope enables pen-side diagnostics

Microscopes have been around for hundreds of years; yet good quality microscope images are still confined to the lab, since microscopes and large, heavy and delicate. Vets frequently have to collect samples in the field, then send them to the lab for analysis and wait a day or two for the results. The ioLight portable microscope changes this and enables good quality microscope images to be taken in the field.

As well as being portable, this digital microscope can be used by inexperienced people since it is very easy to use. The images and videos are viewed on a mobile phone, tablet or computer so it is really easy to send them via email or social media, or paste them into a report.

The ioLight portable microscope in the cattle shed at Red Oak Farm

The ioLight portable microscope in the cattle shed at Red Oak Farm

The microscope is currently being used by vets and a number of organisations in the animal health industry including Moredun, APHA, FERA, RVC, CEFAS and Bayer.

For example, a digital portable microscope is great for faecal worm egg counts. It can be used with a standard McMasters counting chamber at the pen-side, eliminating the need to take samples back to the lab and enabling immediate treatment. It also allows vets to discuss the images on the farm, which helps the client to appreciate why only the affected animals should be given worming drugs. This reduces drug use and the risk of the pasture and animals becoming infected with drug resistant worms. New Forest Equine Vets are a great example of a practice using the portable  microscope as seen here in this short video.

Equine strongyle eggs in a McMasters counting chamber viewed with the ioLight field microscope

Equine strongyle eggs in a McMasters counting chamber viewed with the ioLight field microscope

Aquaculture is another area in which the ioLight microscope is finding use. It is well suited for fish disease diagnosis and live feed identification on site. In his article on the ioLight microscope, Bill Manci of Fisheries Technology Associates said “other field microscopes just became obsolete.”

The microscope is also used for science outreach and training by the RVC, Oxford, Cambridge and other universities. They find that the small size, ease of use and presentation of images on a phone/tablet or large screen helps the students to concentrate on the science without difficulties using the microscope getting in the way.

An animal parasite at an RVC event viewed with the ioLight microscope

An animal parasite at an RVC event viewed with the ioLight microscope

There are clearly many other uses for a robust, easy to use portable microscope. What would you use a portable microscope for? Please let us know.

After completing a PhD in optics and lasers at Oxford University, Richard Williams continued research at Oxford in both the Engineering and Physics departments. In 1998 he moved to Southampton University and worked on optical fibres. When he left the University he had produced more than 50 academic publications. In 2003, together with Andrew Monk, he raised funding from venture capitalists and started a spin-out company. Richard was CEO of the spinout company for 8 years, then following a period of consulting he built a prototype portable microscope and teamed up back with Andrew Monk to form ioLight.

Alison Lambert

Innovate or die. Creating the perfect customer experience

At Onswitch we work every day with practices large and small; mixed, equine and small animal; at home and abroad. We see first hand the business challenges thrown up by the changing marketplace (more practices, animal care services increasingly available online and outside the veterinary sector, fewer opportunities for practice ownership and increased team turnover). Consumer expectations and behaviours are changing too, and with more choice the customer experience becomes increasingly important to commercial success – a proven fact that it appears many veterinary businesses either do not believe or are not willing to be influenced by.

Times they are a changin’, and so must we.

But real and positive change involves more than just doing things differently, it requires us to do things better. For me, the innovation required in the veterinary customer experience is simple but fundamental – we need to make a seismic shift in our attitude to service delivery. We must accept as normal the many aspects of modern life that consumers take for granted when buying goods and services elsewhere:

  • Very few people carry cash now – contactless payments, in-app purchases, card swipes to secure bookings are all commonplace everywhere else except the veterinary practice
  • Tracking parcels, rescheduling deliveries and use of secure lockers at train stations and in shopping malls allow seamless integration into the busy working week. Yet owners leaving their pets for surgery are told to ring in at 4pm for a progress report – imagine if they could log onto their practice account and see regular updates? This will become increasingly important to all those Millennials and GenZers who don’t like talking on the phone – why can’t we just send updates via text?
  • And why are we still dropping pets off at 8am when the surgery won’t begin until mid-afternoon?

In fact, the true innovation we need to make in veterinary customer care is actually not really innovative at all, it’s obvious – make it easy for clients to use your services, or watch them go elsewhere. But there’s more – because in a sector with so much available choice, access to great clinical care doesn’t just need to be easy, it needs to be enjoyable too. Sure, we can introduce technology to enable client contact quickly and easily, but in a service sector driven massively by emotion (it’s not just a dog, it’s a much-loved member of the family) we must always maintain human warmth. Online appointment booking and texting booster reminders deliver convenience; eye contact and remembering the dog’s name when he comes in show that you care and help bond the client to your practice.

Technology enables contact, but people enhance it.

Invest in processes and people that will deliver a truly outstanding customer experience – do what’s best for the client rather than what’s easiest for the practice, and success will follow.

For too long, the veterinary sector has seen change as a threat – innovators see change as an opportunity. Yet change is the new normal in every other sector, let’s make it so in ours.

Alison Lambert BVSc CMRS MRCVS, Managing Director of Onswitch, Associate Professor in Business, Nottingham Vet School. 

Alison is from Yorkshire and her family come from East Yorkshire where they have worked the land, raised pigs and wasted lots of money on horses.

Following qualification as a vet from Liverpool University in 1989, Alison worked in practice for several years before pursuing a business career with Hills Pet Nutrition and MARS, where she discovered the passion for the customer experience that her award-winning company, Onswitch, is renowned for today. Established in 2001, Onswitch promotes customer-centred practice so pets, horses and livestock receive best care; providing research, marketing, CPD and business consultancy with an effective, innovative, straight-talking and client-led approach.

Alison is Associate Professor in Business at The University of Nottingham Vet School, teaching Business skills. She is published widely and regularly speaks at key international veterinary congresses and events.

Visit the Onswitch website

Bill Oxley

3D-printing: A new frontier in veterinary orthopaedics

The basic principle of 3D-printing is these days familiar to most; very thin layers of material are sequentially printed, building up a potentially complex 3D object. An astonishing range of materials can be 3D-printed including most surgically implanted metals (for example stainless steel, titanium, titanium alloys and cobalt-chrome), many plastics (including biocompatible and autoclavable forms), and biological materials (such as cells and scaffolds including hydrogels hydroxyapatite). In veterinary orthopaedics 3D-printing is currently used predominantly for the creation of printed bone models and surgical guides, and in the manufacture of patient-specific or complex implants. There is immense potential for tissue engineering applications, although in veterinary orthopaedics these techniques are not widely clinical available at present

3D-printed bone models and surgical guides

The most basic application of 3D-printing in veterinary orthopaedics is the creation of printed bone models. The ability to directly visualise for example a bone deformity can facilitate surgical planning, as well as permitting surgical rehearsal. CT data is the starting point for model creation. The 3D data describing the bone itself is extracted from the complete data set, some CAD processing performed, with the 3D virtual bone model then exported to the 3D printer. Since the thickness of the 3D-printed layers is much less than that of a CT scanner (25-100µm vs. >600µm) the accuracy of the model is determined by the CT data rather than the printer, although this remains very high.

The ability to manipulate 3D virtual bone models in CAD software allows planning of surgical interventions including deformity corrections, vertebral stabilisations and complex fracture alignments. Patient-specific surgical guides can then be created which permit translation of the surgical plan to the patient in theatre. These guides typically incorporate a bone contact surface that accurately reflects the contours of the cortex beneath; the guide therefore fits onto the bone in a unique location, allowing accurate localisation of osteotomy guide planes and drill hole trajectories. Guides are typically printed in biocompatible, autoclavable plastic. Clinical benefits include consistent, accurate surgical outcomes, reduced surgical time, and the ability to place implants into narrow safe corridors.

3D-printed implants

3D-printing in metal remains a specialist process, requiring a significant investment in hardware as well as engineering skills and facilities. Patient-specific metal implants can be printed which fit uniquely into position in much as the same way as plastic surgical guides. Such implants are rarely necessary for routine interventions such as deformity corrections, but have significant potential advantages in more complex applications such as limb-sparing surgery and reconstruction of other large bone deficits. 3D-printed patient-specific joint replacement prostheses are used in human orthopaedics and have been applied in specific veterinary applications.

The second key use of 3D metal printing in veterinary orthopaedics is in the production of generic, but complex, implants. The key advantage over traditional manufacturing techniques is the ability to easily create complicated 3D shapes, and to incorporate specialised surfaces (e.g. for bone ingrowth) without the need for multiple engineering processes.

The future

What is the future of 3D-printing in veterinary medicine? As with all new technologies costs will come down, and accessibility to non-specialist users improve. Already dentists can use cloud-based software to create their own patient-specific drill guides which are printed and arrive a few days later; maybe before long vets will be doing the same. And the list of applications continues to grow, both in other surgical fields (e.g. 3D-printing of portosystemic shunts and tumours) and in non-surgical areas (e.g. customisable 3D-printed drugs). Will 3D printing alter the face of veterinary medicine? Not in the foreseeable future, especially in the context of high-tech applications such as tissue engineering. However, especially in specific areas such as orthopaedics many existing applications are already resulting in improved patient care at accessible cost, a trend that will certainly continue.

Bill graduated in 1997, and after a period in general practice undertook an orthopaedic Residency at Willows Referral Service between 2009 and 2011. Bill gained his RCVS Diploma in Orthopaedics in 2013, and RCVS Specialist status the following year. Bill founded Vet3D in 2015 to provide access for orthopaedic surgeons to CAD based surgical planning and patient-specific orthopaedic and neurosurgical guide systems.

Rafe Garvin

The veterinary sector: an investor’s perspective

This blog represents the first of a series of blogs on how the investment community views and assesses businesses in the veterinary industry. It is intended to be informative at a high level but also thought provoking. The aim is to help veterinary professionals to understand how the broader investment community functions whilst dealing with its vast idiosyncrasies.

From an investor’s standpoint, veterinary businesses are rare and predominantly hidden gems. Thus far, few relatively specialised corporates have ventured into this space. The consolidation of operational structures for existing vets aiming to centralise services that are often seen as “getting in the way of taking care of the animals” appears to be a big driver. Realising locked values of relatively small businesses is often also sought. Larger scale sales, such as those of Specialist Referral practices are arguably very palatable to those corporates wishing to own more sizeable assets and goodwill (embedded expertise) directly.

Setting aside for now the substantial services associated with the pure veterinary world such as pharma, pet food, equipment/toys etc. which are arguably better covered in the investment world due to their respective sizes, the decade-long consolidation of veterinary practices does introduce the uninitiated investor to greater nominal (i.e. size), larger aggregate investment metrics (measurable profitability) and certainly access to what remains a very granular market.

Investors define attractiveness of an industry through the analysis of data and its characteristics. The characteristics of the veterinary industry are pretty straight forward to grasp. This however is greatly contrasted by a near complete absence of any meaningful publicly available set of performance and profitability data.

In the absence of long term aggregate data, investors can retrench to a bunch of assumptions based on those specific characteristics to understand how attractive an investment can be. The substantial barriers to entry such as qualifications required, technical equipment, knowledge, geographical targeting and relatively high margins, can be seen as hitting quite a few of the buttons that would make any investor very excitable.

One important characteristic is the industry’s relative insulation to financial crises. There is very little that suggests that pet owners / pet parents would stop entirely taking care of their pets in cases of equity (stocks and shares) market falls. Anecdotal evidence does suggest the opposite, if anything. Ironically, the same appears to apply to pubs and alcohol stocks. There could be something there!

Beyond the profitability aspects of the industry, that perceived lack of correlation to equity markets is of huge value to investors. Any asset that continues to perform whilst other parts of the investment spectrum fall is THE prized asset.

Investors can be seen as obsessively driven by profitability and therefore relatively fickle with short term objectives and little appetite for poor or sub-par performance against expectations. Set against highly ethically minded veterinary professionals with a long-term view of their personal careers, there is little doubt that this has and will continue to create frictions. A new reality of constant commercial pressures and the search for returns from investors, coupled with these caring ambitions of veterinary professionals, can make for uneasy bedfellows.

One attractive option, is for the entire veterinary industry to adopt policies and standards aligned to ethical or Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) principles. This could open the door to a rare breed of investors who have accepted that the sole search for profit and short timeframe may not be entirely beneficial to society and have accepted some of the perceived financial drawbacks associated with this view.

The fact is that these apparent financial trade-offs associated with ethical investments have not been fully verified and in some cases quite the contrary is true. Therefore, going forward, this type of investment approach could potentially make for a more suitable companionship between the two industries.

Rafe is the Head of Investments for Investec’s Private Office and has well over 20 years’ experience in Investment Management in London, Switzerland and Jersey. Rafe started his career as an Economist for the European Commission (Science Research Funding – DGXII-B) in Brussels.

Rafe is a Chartered Wealth Manager (Chartered MCSI), holds a number of professional investment qualifications (including as a US advisor) and undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Economics from two of Scotland’s ancient universities.

Ricahrd Burley

Demystifying Digital – Part 1

“Digital” is a word so often used, by so many, in so many contexts, that it can almost seem as if it might mean everything, but its frustrating intangibility can leave us feeling it is inaccessible or perhaps even irrelevant to us.

“Digital” is most valuable when it is simply “including information technology approaches in all our thinking”. But this is not as simple as it might at first seem…

Digital must exist well beyond, and indeed well before; “apps”, “websites”, “databases”, “files” and / or “social media”. Today’s customer / consumer lives in a deeply digital world.

We all want more control and convenience in all aspects of our lives and digital is the only cost-effective method to make this a reality.

Fundamental to commercial success over the next three years, and beyond, will be exactly how digital we, as service suppliers, can become.

The ability to access and manage our experience of all that an organisation can offer us is becoming a defining factor in selecting who we entrust with our money and time. To many it is already as important as “quality” or “cost” as a decision driver. Indeed, increasingly, potential customers will simply not even know about you if you have not at least begun addressing some of the key digital fundamentals.

Beyond the “basics” of searching for you online, finding your contact information and booking an appointment with you, it is easy to see how customers will expect to be able to actually hold the appointment with you online, or access live video of the animals we are caring for on behalf of them overnight…. Which one of us wouldn’t want to check in on a loved one just before bed if we were able? Or use a “health tracking” wearable or implantable device for better insight into the health of an animal over the medium to long term… how long until this starts proactively warning us if the animal is starting to become unwell?

These are just a very small number of ways in which being “digital” can, and will, help us engage more directly and powerfully with our stakeholders.

Through ViVet the RCVS is committed to providing clear, effective and valuable advice on innovations in animal health and welfare, so expect more from us on “digital” very soon, in the meantime we’d love to hear from you below on any of the ways “digital” is impacting on the way you work today, or any of the challenges or opportunities you feel it presents for the future of the veterinary professions.

Richard Burley joined RCVS as Chief Technology Officer in August 2017 with a remit to support the College’s ongoing digital transformation. With more than 20 years’ experience in Technology and Information leadership across the international private, public and charitable sectors he also brings a passion for positive change in advancing organisations towards best practice information management, a truly empowered workforce and fully engaged and inspired stakeholders.

Adam Little

The 21st Century Visit to the Vet: Fusing Online and Offline Interactions

There is little doubt that today’s clients are a different “animal” than the generations before them. They are more connected, closer to their pets, and are spending money at record rates. As a veterinarian this new world can be challenging to adjust to. The combination of competitive threats from new service models, coupled with the growing expectations from clients, can make veterinarians feel like they are fighting a losing battle. But are they?

Do traditional veterinary clinics stand a chance in this new world? Most folks usually fall into one of two camps in this debate. One camp feels that veterinary clinics today are antiquated and that a single company is going to come in and “disrupt” the space to the detriment of practitioners. The other camp believes that veterinary medicine is far too complex and that digital models of care will never replace the role of the veterinarian and that these concerns are hyperboles. I believe there is a third choice and it lies in the middle of those extremes: the existing veterinary model is indeed stale, but clinics can position themselves to not just survive, but thrive. However, this third way requires practitioners to think differently about the role of their practices.

Amazon owns book stores. It seems difficult to imagine that the company that is most famous for digitizing books and subsequently outcompeting most popular chain stores would open stores. Apple has some of the most valuable retail spaces in the world. Beautiful locations which create rich experiences for customers to the point that the stores operate almost as tourist destinations. Both of these companies could operate entirely in the virtual space, but physical space has value. We are seeing how even e-commerce first companies are leveraging brick and mortar locations to provide their customers with a complete experience. The key is recognizing which parts of the experience are best delivered outside of the store, which parts are best delivered within, and how to connect them. For example, online clothing companies are creating physical stores not to carry inventory, but rather as high-fitting rooms, complete with stylists, to complement the online journey customers are on.

Veterinary clinics were designed for a world of information scarcity and have been operated as such for decades. The experience started and stopped at the front door and there wasn’t an expectation of anything more. This is simply no longer the case. Veterinary clinics need to begin to see themselves as connected service providers that not just restrained four walls and 9-5 office hours. Over the past several years, we have seen an explosion of new tools and technologies to help support practices in achieving this. However, too often practices still view these solutions as disparate parts instead of pieces of puzzle that need to be joined together to create a seamless experience. For example, while many practices allow for clients to fill out paperwork ahead of the appointment, rarely does this translate into an appointment that is more personalized or more efficient. It isn’t enough to simply utilize these new technologies, but rather they need to be woven together in an effort to create consistency for clients.

In summary, practices shouldn’t be seeking out tech for tech’s sake. Instead, practitioners should focus on the entire client experience and how these tools can serve clients in a more connected, personalized, and efficient manner. We shouldn’t fear the reality that pet owners want to be empowered with tools that allow them to make decisions and take action both in and outside of the clinic. Whether this is asking questions about their pet’s health, ordering medications, or scheduling an appointment, we need to lower the barriers to access and instead create new digital channels through which meaningful in-person interactions can be facilitated. More fundamentally, this involves shifting the clinic’s focus from a unidirectional information, service, and product provider to becoming a relationship businesses. We cannot feel threatened by the fact that clients have information at their fingertips, but embrace that engagement and harness it towards more collaborative decisions for their pet.

Imagine if your clients could easily reach out via text message if they had questions about their pet’s health. Instead of having to repeat basic information about their pet, the service on the other end had all of their information and could concentrate on the current issue at hand. Once it was determined that the pet needed to see the veterinarian, they were automatically booked in for a visit and that information was seamlessly sent to the clinic so that when the pet arrived, the veterinary team knew exactly what was going on and how to proceed. The client would have the context for why the visit was necessary and be much more engaged in their pet’s health. On the other side, the clinic could be more efficient and deliver a higher quality experience for both the patient and client. The digital world shouldn’t detract from a client’s experience, but rather enhance it and that focus will bring a renewed sense of purpose to our “antiqued” practice model.

Dr. Adam Little is a veterinarian and entrepreneur who works on creative solutions to addressing human and animal health issues. He has a BSc and DVM from the University of Guelph and is the first veterinarian to attend Singularity University, a prestigious Silicon Valley-based institution which explores the fast moving technologies and their impact on the world. In addition to serving as a Board Member with the Catalyst Council and Veterinarians without Borders, Dr Little serves on faculty with Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine Biomedical Sciences as Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.  Dr. Little is the President of Exponential Vet Inc., where he assists veterinary stakeholders in harnessing the rapid of pace of change to grow their business. He is also co-founder of FuturePet which is building technology to upgrade the client experience of veterinary practices.

Dr James Andrews with dog Homer

Technology: Creating alternative careers for vets

A veterinary education provides one of the most thorough groundings in problem solving and analytical thought of any degree programme. And when we graduate, most of us use those skills to understand our patients – to discover, diagnose, treat and monitor.

Our education makes us much more versatile than you may realise. There are many opportunities outside of the traditional career path for veterinary trained individuals, and technology is making these even more evident.

Technology revolves around problem-solving. Streamlining processes and making things simpler, and ultimately, easier for the user. An analytical approach to understanding the data available and transforming this into actionable insights is key to any technology business.

The logical mindset which we develop at vet school, and apply during the early clinical jobs most of us take, is perfectly suited to careers in coding, data science, and data analytics.

Data and technology are the future, both of veterinary medicine and all other industries. And learning the core skills to build a career in tech-focused fields is widely accessible now. From online coding courses to short-term coding academy programmes, making the career jump from animals to analytics has become far easier.

What skills do you need to make this move?

Coding should be your first start. If you’re imagining ‘Matrix’ style reams of code, pause and breathe.

Admittedly, at an advanced level, it can look like this.

But it’s easy to make a start. Organisations like Harvard University and General Assembly offer both classroom based and online coding courses, geared towards specific specialisms including data science, iOS development or web development.

Coding is logical, and analytical. You’ve already developed these skills to a high level, this is just another way of applying them.

So where can these careers take you?

If you’re looking for a smaller jump, away from the clinical side but still within veterinary sciences, consider a career as a data scientist. In academic circles, data scientists are already widely working in veterinary schools and universities, whilst on the commercial side, larger pharmaceutical brands, such as Zoetis, rely heavily on data science to make informed decisions and understand the impact of their drug trials. You’ll be working with large streams of data and manipulating it to discover valuable meanings and uncover key trends.

For those of you looking to move further from the veterinary world, consider adding some coding training to your arsenal. Depending on what side of the tech spectrum you want to be, retraining as a developer could see you building beautiful, functional apps, or building highly technical backend infrastructures to store data and organise businesses. Developers have an immense flexibility to work in companies of all sizes and industries, as well as on exciting and ground-breaking projects. They are also highly sought after in today’s job markets.

Alternatively, take your career firmly into your own hands. Immerse yourself in the technology scene. Develop an expertise in current trends, themes and future trajectories, and then start your own business. Become a veterinary entrepreneur.

That’s how Felcana started. Using cutting-edge hardware, and the latest software and data analysis techniques we’re re-inventing the way pet owners and veterinarians interact and care for their animals.

Veterinary medicine is a life-long vocation to many of us, but it doesn’t hurt to develop some external tech skills to sit alongside your clinical skills. In a landscape that is evolving as quickly as veterinary medicine, understanding technology will take you a long way.

Dr James Andrews is a veterinarian turned management consultant and co-founder of Felcana, a digital health platform for pets. Having trained at The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, James practiced as a vet before turning his skills to the commercial world, developing hardware and software solutions for pet owners and vets alike. James’ focus is on digital innovation in the veterinary space and he ardently champions the adoption of novel technologies within the veterinary community.