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Technology Advances & Its Impact on Veterinary Practices

Technology advances and its impact on veterinary practices – including e-CPD and e-learning options

(as printed in the Vet Nursing Times – see links to PDF versions at bottom of post)

The word technology means different things to different people. Many of us think of smartphones or sophisticated computers as cutting-edge technology and perhaps don’t imagine that there is much in the way of technological advancement occurring in everyday clinical practice.  The truth is that there is a lot of advancement in a variety of technologies taking place in veterinary practice, and it is some of these that I aim to share with you today.

Technology is, for me, anything that helps us to do our jobs better, whether it be enabling us to perform tasks faster, more effectively, or to enable us to achieve a better outcome for our patients and clients. In essence, technological advances should, and usually do, enhance both our personal and working lives. There are three areas in which we see advances in technology in practice. The first is clinical technology; the classic ‘vetty’ gadgets, gizmos and systems that make the process of diagnosing, treating and managing our patients easier and more effective. Secondly, there are the advances in practice management and client communication technologies, an area which in my opinion has probably seen the biggest changes and which offer the biggest opportunities for really impacting on our clinics’ bottom lines. The third area for focus is the use of technology in education and CPD, important in ensuring our personal and professional growth and where technology is certainly having a big impact.

 

Clinical Tech

Although our focus is on first opinion practice, it is worth noting the fact that as general practitioners we have ready access to the very latest clinical technology and cutting-edge diagnostics and treatments through our ability to refer to our specialist colleagues. We are, as vets, able to pretty much do anything that is clinically possible and this is, in large part due to the huge advances in knowledge, expertise and technology at our disposal within the specialist fields.

Imaging is probably one of the main areas in which technology is at it’s most obvious. Gone are the days, for many of us, of long periods stuck in a dark, hot, generally uncomfortable radiography suite taking multiple radiographs and getting more and more frustrated at how long it can take just to get a simple series of images. It was a revelation when I moved to my second job and discovered the joys of digitial radiography. No need to fumble in the dark with open cassettes and film or handle noxious chemicals, and the images were pretty much instantaneously available. The system I first encountered was CR-tech, or Computed Radiography technology, involving the exposure of a plate, as per traditional methods, and then the processing of these films by way of a digital system. Since then there have been further advancements with the emergence of DDR-tech (Direct Digital Radiography), in which the plate is exposed and an image almost instantaneously appears on screen without the need to manually place the plate into a processing unit. This is possible due to the use of a syntillated plate, or direct digital panel (DDP), which effectively replaces the plethora of film cassettes that we’re used to using at present. Never has the phrase “take a quick X-ray” been so accurate!

In parallel to advances in the technological hardware itself comes developments in software, meaning that the process of taking, processing and working with radiographic images is much more user friendly and clinically helpful. There are, for example, bespoke software packages that will guide the vet through the correct measurements required for planning a tibial plateau levelling procedure, for example. The reduction in the sheer size and amount of necessary hardware, coupled with the options of cloud storage, where digital files are stored on a remote server away from the clinic (think Facebook, whereby your profile is actually hosted on a server in the US, or elsewhere, and not all on your desktop) has meant that even the smallest of clinics can boast an impressively powerful and versatile radiography capability, with none of the hassle associated with the secure storage, organisation and retrieval of hundreds of radiographs. Much simpler and much more elegant.

portable ultrasound scannerUltrasound technology is another area where we have seen impressive changes in practice. From super-powerful, all singing, all dancing set-ups, such as the Logiq S7 Expert, which makes use of new matrix probes and B-flow technology, useful for assessing vascularisation in tumours, for example, to the miniaturisation of the scanners, allowing us to both reduce the amount of space taken up in our clinics and ‘take the scan to the patient,’ whether in a hospital or out on calls, the changes have been staggering. To have the kind of imaging power that we have in a device no bigger than a laptop computer is a sure sign of the advances in technology that we are enjoying as vets.

vgel endotracheal tubeOne of the key attributes of a true technical advancement is one which takes an established way of doing something and completely rethinks it, or revolutionises it. One such example of new technology that does just that is the v-gel, a new airway system for ventilating anaesthetised patients. The point to note is that it isn’t an endotracheal tube – that’s the revolutionary thing about it. Instead of inserting into the trachea, through the larynx, the v-gel creates an effective seal around the pharyngeal, laryngeal and upper airway tissues, thus positioning a large diameter opening directly over the larynx to permit normal gas exchange with no trauma to, or even contact with, the larynx. One of the key advantages of this new system is that rather than needing a tube that is in effect smaller in diameter than the trachea, the v-gel allows the tube to be larger in diameter than the patient’s trachea thus maximising air flow and exchange. The soft rubber tip, that atraumatically ‘plugs’ the oesophagus, also serves as a good counter to the risk from regurgitation under anaesthetic. Currently available for both rabbits and cats, with dog versions in development, these new tubes represent a fantastic example of a smart, cleverly designed advancement of an existing technology.

 

Client Engagement

MailChimp screenshotWe’re all aware of the need to better engage with and market to our clients, both current and prospective, with the level of competition between practices apparently increasing all of the time. The methods for doing so these days have never been so plentiful nor powerful, yet many of us are still failing to maximise on the potential returns that doing so could bring. One of the simplest ways of better engaging with our clients, and those who show an interest in our services, is through email and the careful but MailChimp email marketingeffective management of email lists. Email management services such as MailChimp, which enable even the most technophobic of users to set-up a mailing list, design a web form to be posted on a website, social media, or even accessed via a link which can be emailed, and then organise, manage and communicate effectively with the people on that list, are brilliant and it is amazing how useful they can be for practices. Imagine, for example, how impressed your clients would be to receive an email on their pet’s birthday wishing them many happy returns. Combining such a thoughtful gesture with a suggestion of a senior health check if the pet has just turned seven, for instance, could be an easy yet effective way of driving more business through your doors. Through careful segmentation of lists, such as having a list containing only those clients who own cats under 7 years of age, for example, it becomes much easier to provide them with relevant information that they will find interesting and useful, with the result being a much greater level of trust in and bonding with you and your practice. How many of us actively ask our clients or new prospects, for their email address? My guess is very few. The truth is that these days people almost expect to be asked for it and we should be making a greater effort to make use of the advances in email and online marketing, much of which is available either free or very low cost, especially when compared to other marketing media such as print. Done well, email could be the best use of technology you have in your practice at present.

Social media is another potentially powerful way to engage with our clients and to help make us stand out from the crowd. People are interested in what we do as vets and what can often seem like the most run of the mill, mundane, day to day event in our clinics may form the basis for a fantastic Tweet or Facebook post, which can encourage a conversation between people and raise the prominence of us and our clinics in a good way. Obviously care has to be exercised, like with anything, but Social Media is one surefire example of a recent technology that veterinary practices have a lot to potentially gain from. Some clinics have embraced this aspect of marketing, using it to converse with clients and to provide updates, information and education through the use of videos, for example. Engaging clients in such a manner is a great way of strengthening the bond they have with your practice.

vet using ipadSome clinics have embraced technology more than others with some even rewriting the rule books on how we can manage our practices. Vets Klinic in Swindon have just one desktop computer in their practice, with each vet and nurse issued their own, personal iPad on which the clinic’s bespoke practice management system is accessed, meaning that patients’ records are readily accessible no matter where you are in the clinic and making the consulting rooms, and other areas feel clutter free. Use of tablets also enables patients’ time within the clinic to be recorded, and photos and notes about their stay easily uploaded to their clinical ‘timeline.’ Owners can access their pet’s timeline and see in realtime how their pet is getting on. Clients are actively encouraged to register and book everything from appointments to surgery online, with an airline style booking system showing prices and times of appointments with each vet, with real-time variable pricing a feature and a discount on offer for clients who prepay in advance of their appointment.. Tablet computers do appear to be excellent devices for use in a busy hospital environment, with the ability to readily access a patient’s notes wherever you, as the vet or nurse, happen to be within the clinic.

 

Electronic Learning

nerdy vet with laptopThe internet has quite simply revolutionised the way in which we access and consume CPD, with webinars and online learning resources becoming ever more commonly used, and available across virtually every platform, from smartphones to tablets and the trusty desktop computer. The advantages are clear: access to reliable, interesting CPD without the need and expense of taking time out of our busy clinical lives or the hassle of travel to attend lectures. With a plethora of providers, including many of the drug companies, learning online can be achieved at little to no cost and represents a very cost effective way of ensuring we keep our CPD current and maximising our CPD budgets. The only limitation that I could see from my experience of ‘attending’ a webinar was the fact that as the event was taking place on my computer and in the comfort of my own home, unless the speaker was particularly engaging, it was very easy to get distracted with other activities whilst convincing myself that I was still learning as I had the lecture playing. This coupled with the knowledge that I could always go back to the lecture and view it again at another time only acted to fuel my distraction. Somehow there just seems less risk of this happening when you’re physically present with the lecturer and other CPD attendees present in the same room. But then, maybe that’s just me and everyone else is a consumate good student at home. With so many other distractions constantly vying for our valuable attention the challenge, as I can see it, is for e-CPD providers to ensure that their content is as engaging and interesting as possible, including the use of mixed media, from standard lecture-style presentation slides and speech, to clever use of graphics, video and animations to really bring subject matter to life and inspire people. After all, the last thing any vet wants after a long, hard day in the clinic is to sit through a dull lecture, even if they do have the option of switching over, as it were.

One of the exciting challenges for the future will be in seeing how e-CPD can deliver more practical training, with a physical presence still very much required at present for practical CPD courses. Maybe a stepping stone will be the provision of ‘learning kits’, complete with necessary equipment and materials which the student can make use of whilst receiving remote instruction via a webinar or other means of e-learning. Although e-learning is delivering a wider and more accessible range of CPD to the profession, available at any time, anywhere and in any format, it is unlikely that it will completely usurp the strong desire we have as humans to actually congregate in the same space to receive educational instruction and socialise, as is clearly demonstrated by the continuing popularity of congresses, such as the London Vet Show.

Whether we realise it or not, technology and advances in it are all around us in practice. From the scanners we use to make diagnoses to the equipment we employ to safely manage our ill patients, or the plethora software tools, both bespoke and consumer options, technology is pervasive and empowering. It has changed the way we engage with clients, market our services, and continue our professional development, and all pointers are in the direction of yet more innovation and technological advancement, I for one watch on excitedly.

Links to the PDF versions of the original article, as printed in the Vet Nursing Times:

VNT Tech Article Feb2013_p1

VNT Tech Article Feb2013_p2

Does your practice website ROCK?

Slash rock god guitaristPractice websites – does yours rock?!

The internet is more and more vital to the success of any practice, with the primary role being to gain new clients & help retain existing ones. However, simply having a website is not good enough anymore – it has to rock!

I recently attended an Entrepreneurs Circle event on websites and it really got me thinking a lot about what it is that vet practices can and should be doing to really ensure that their websites are as epic as they can be. I would like to share some of the thoughts that came out of this thinking and offer my take on how practices should be applying the lessons to their own practices. If you are serious about really growing your clinic then I do recommend considering joining the Entrepreneurs Circle.

1. Why have a website?

There are 3 main reasons: 1. to sell things online; 2. to get clients to call you; 3. to get clients to give you their contact details. Most clinics are interested in getting clients into the hospital so getting them to call you, and FIND you is key. Is it clear how they go about doing that on your site? If it is then the second question has to be is there a clear reason why they should bother calling you?

2. Two-second rule

These days we all have the attention span of a hyperactive kid with attention deficit disorder and expect websites to speak to us immediately. Does yours? Is it clear from the first fold (the first view of the homepage) what you do and who you are for? How does your site look on different devices, including mobile, which is becoming more and more important?

woorank.com is a great free resource for checking your site for a number of relevant parameters and will tell you where you can improve things.

Navigation is also an important point here as it must be clear and intuitive how users move through your site. Is it obvious how to contact you? Can users easily switch back to the main homepage by clicking the practice logo in the header, or do they have to follow a long, winding bit of digital string back to the entrance? If so then they’re just as likely to exit the site altogether and find a local competitor. Get as many different people (ideally those representing your clients) to play with your site and feedback on what they thought of the navigation and ease of use.

3. Google Analytics

Do you know how many visitors are coming to your site? Where they are entering and leaving? How many visitors compared to the number of enquiries or bookings made? What about the keywords that people are using to find your site? Information is power and Google Analytics provides information in bucket-loads to enable you to really drill down in to how your website is working and, most importantly, how it can be improved to bring more clients to your door. It is easy to set up for your site and your web developer has probably already installed it for you – ask them.

4. Reviews (What our customers say)

We all love to see that a product or service has been proven and word of mouth (reviews by another name) is still one of the most reliable ways to gain new business. I would sooner use a professional that another person, independent of the business, has had a good experience with than take a punt on an unknown – most of us don’t like being pioneers, especially when it comes to both the health of our animals and that of our wallets. Your current clients love you – if they didn’t they’d go elsewhere. Ask them for reviews, including photos if they’re happy for them to go on the website (most people are), and get them on your website in various, prominent positions.

5. Personal Touches

Veterinary is more of a people business than it is anything else and pet owners invest as much in the vets and staff they like and trust than they do in any other aspect of the practice’s offering, including price. You could be the cheapest vet in the entire country but if you’re as personable as Jack The Ripper then no (sane) client is going to stay with you. Show your existing and potential new clients just how awesome, friendly and personable you and your team are. Have photos of the team (nice, professional, smiley photos as opposed to dour, happy-snap ‘passport style’ mugshots) and include great photos of your clinic, including some scenes from both outside and inside, preferably showing what you do well.

6. Phone numbers

It is still the case that the phone is the most valuable piece of equipment in veterinary practice today – without it we’d be sunk! Is your phone number clearly visible on each and every page of your website? It is best placed up in the top right corner where it is most visible. Also, ensure that it is entered on your site as text so that it is automatically available to copy, call etc from a smartphone. One thing that might be worth considering as well is the use of call tracking numbers. These divert to your normal phone line but can be a great way of actively keeping track of where calls are originating from. Are clients calling you because they saw a flyer? Or have they searched for you online and found your website? Having a different call tracking number in each place provides a simple method for seeing which media/ marketing efforts are yielding the most calls. www.citynumbers.co.uk is a good place to get them, and they cost a few £ per month, so very affordable.

7. Language

Does your site read like you would actually speak with pet owners or is it more akin to something straight out of a stuffy office in Whitehall? If you’re aiming to project a fun, friendly, caring image then surely the language you use on your website should reflect the same. Have a go now by reading out sections of text from your website aloud. If you feel like you’re addressing the House of Lords when you speak then maybe the language needs revision.

8. Images

A picture does indeed paint a thousand words and the use of professionally taken, crisp, clear, fun photos of you and your team all working harmoniously together in your superbly clean and well equipped practice, surrounded by happy, content animals will do more to make your practice shine in the eyes of new and existing clients than any amount of well-written prose. A professional photographer needn’t break the bank and could well be a very savvy investment.

9. Video

A lot of websites make video available now and it can be a really smart way to offer an insight into what it is your practice offers. I find myself clicking to watch introductory videos on businesses’ homepages far more than I ever used to, and probably make the decision to stay on the site based on what I see more so than on what I read, if I am honest. A short, well filmed and edited video introduction to the practice, especially if presented by someone clients can identify with and relate to, will really help to bond people to your site and to the practice, encouraging them to pick up the phone and give you a call. One question that does arise is that of “to autoplay, or not to autoplay?” I personally have no issue with videos that autoplay as long as the sound is not on and I don’t run the risk of inadvertently blasting the quiet cafe or library that I might be in with noise. If it is appropriate then I can always choose to activate the sound and listen to the video commentary. Whether you choose to autoplay or not is up to you but it is worth considering whether some people might be inclined to navigate off the page rapidly if they are not prepared for a video with sound to suddenly kick into life. Short video is good, with no more than a couple of minutes generally being advised before people get bored.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to really making your practice’s website rock but with the application of some of the principles above then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be performing brilliantly and taking your clinic to epic heights.

And the award goes to…

It seems to be a week of awards. Sadly not ones that I am personally winning but they are ones I have been attending nonetheless. Having said this, Friday saw me come pretty close to picking up the coveted Veterinary Marketing Association award for Young Marketer of the Year 2011, which was sponsored by British Dairying. This award was open to young (under 30 years of age – just snuck in there then) professionals within the animal health sector who have demonstrably shown promise in the field of marketing over the past twelve months. Each contender was nominated by their line manager, or otherwise, with Penny Evans of Moor Cottage Veterinary Hospital very kindly putting me forward. The winner was decided following an interview yesterday morning, right before the annual awards ceremony itself. As you may have guess, I did not end up walking away with the top prize, although did receive a rather snazzy certificate as a Highly Commended Runner-Up. The top prize went to the very deserving Jemima Scott, Vetmedin Brand Manager at Boehringer Ingelheim, who I daresay I wasn’t anywhere close to being a true competitor to. A deserving winner indeed.

The awards themselves were fantastic! Held at the Globe Theatre in London in the exhibition area beneath the theatre, the scene was one of mesmerising and magical light, with a truly Shakespearean feel to the entire room. They even had a tree in the middle of the banqueting area! A tree I tell you! How can that ever NOT be epic?! I had the very good fortune of spending the afternoon with some very fun and interesting people and got to see a side of the animal healthcare industry that very few in practice ever get to. The clear winners of the afternoon, other than Jemima, were Boehringer Ingelheim, who walked away with no less than 9 awards. They were certainly the runaway winners and the head of their advertising agency who, from where I was sitting, bore a remarkably uncanny resemblance to Robert DeNiro, ended up spending more time posing on the stage and brandishing polished marble than he did sat at his table. I think at one point it was suggested that his table actually be moved up there to save him the walk!

Now, I like my food and have had experiences of balls and other such events before, with the general experience being one of being underwhelmed by the catering. Not so yesterday. I think I can safely say that the medieval feast put on by the team at The Globe was by far and away THE best meal I have had at such an event and if I were ever to stage an event then I would definately be considering picking up the phone to the organisers and booking the same venue.

Here’s to the work of the Vet Marketing Association and the professionals who keep us entertained, informed and generally aware and abreast of the latest products and innovations in the animal healthcare sector. Roll on next year. I for one very much hope to be there.