Why Technology Isn’t One Size Fits All for Horses
A look at the upsides and downsides of equine technology.
We live in a world dominated by technology. The pace of change has been breathtaking, and advances have made equine practice easier, more innovative and more efficient.
But is technology the key to a successful 21st-century equine practice?
Clients may view new technology as evidence that a practitioner is cutting edge and committed to the latest in equine care. As such, investing in technology may be thought of as a form of advertising.
Of course, not all technology is created equally. The equine world is filled with an almost limitless number of devices that blink, shine or magnetize. Practitioners should consider whether they can recoup their investment in treatment technologies.
Upside: Saving Money
In some circumstances, technology can help equine practitioners save money. For example, keeping track of the need for routine procedures such as vaccinations can be cumbersome when done manually, but practice software permits general reminders to be sent automatically. In addition, data-sharing allows several practitioners to review the same information simultaneously without all of them having to be in one location.
Upside: Saving Time
In some circumstances, technology clearly decreases the time needed to accomplish a task. For example, digital radiography offers significant advantages insofar as the speed with which radiographs are processed, ultimately allowing practitioners to take more radiographs compared to other technologies. Similarly, distributing the radiographs can be done via email, negating the need for telephone communication.
As much as we may want it to be so, technology does not always result in greater efficiency. Practices that lean heavily on technology systems may be virtually paralyzed if a system breaks down or if a provider is unresponsive or, even worse, goes out of business. New technologies come with learning curves that can make implementation a struggle and result in lost productivity and frustration.
Many technologies require regular upgrades or maintenance contracts, which can add to the purchase price. Conversely, some programs may not be upgraded regularly and therefore may lack the features of newer releases. Entire computer systems eventually may need to be upgraded.
It’s pretty much inconceivable that a modern equine practice could do without personal computers and mobile phones. Technology has simplified client communication and made veterinarians more accessible to horse owners.
However, communications technology comes at a cost. While increased access may be seen as a benefit by some, others may see this as a possible invasion of privacy. Clients may not respect the time of a solo practitioner who responds to a small number of equine medical problems. Incessant texting or late-night calls about minor issues can be a source of irritation.
To help control such things, some practitioners may favor automated phone-answering systems, but clients may become frustrated if they can’t interact with a live person. While technology provides many choices, none of them necessarily offer solutions for every possible challenge in client communications.
Diagnosing lameness comprises a significant part of the daily work of equine practices large and small, so a means to take radiographs is essential. Whereas the only option available for decades was silver emulsion films and chemicals, technology has given practitioners two primary options.
Digital radiography (DR) uses digital sensors attached to a computer rather than X-ray film or plates. Images are obtained within seconds and without the need for additional processing, which can be a tremendous timesaver for practices that take large numbers of radiographs.
In addition, digital systems typically require less radiation to acquire images. DR software allows for a variety of techniques to enhance image quality, and the systems tend to be relatively forgiving of under- or overexposure.
Computed radiography (CR) uses equipment that is familiar to practitioners who grew up having to process conventional plain-film radiographs. To create the image in CT, a plate made of a photostimulable material takes the place of silver emulsion film. The imaging plate is contained in a cassette, which is then exposed to the X-ray. Instead of taking the exposed film to a dark room for chemical processing in tanks or in an automatic processor, the plate is run through a laser scanner that reads and erases the plate and digitizes the images.
Equipment that comes with the CR reader allows the veterinarian to view and enhance the images, controlling features such as contrast and brightness. A zoom feature allows for closer examination of areas of interest. Images can be captured and shared.
Compared to DR, CR is slower and does not allow as much manipulation of the image. Digital radiography may not be ideal for all equine practices, however. The initial cost is likely higher than with CR units, and maintenance contracts may be required. Digital sensors can be costly, making replacement a considerably investment.
Before purchasing such equipment, small practices would do well to assess their radiographic requirements to make sure the time savings justify the cost.
Ultrasound has revolutionized the ability of equine veterinarians to diagnose and treat a variety of soft-tissue abnormalities and examine the reproductive tract. As with digital radiography, practitioners must weigh the benefits against the cost of the equipment. Many soft-tissue injuries are best managed by rest and controlled rehabilitation, and some cases may be managed conservatively without regularly ultrasound monitoring.
Thanks to technology, record-keeping and tracking patient data is becoming more computerized, lessening the need for hard copies. Information can travel rapidly from laboratory to veterinarian, from veterinarian to client, and between veterinarians.
A number of practice management systems do a good job helping practitioners sort and keep track of data. Smartphones and tablets permit quick access to X-rays, reports, patient records and treatment plans. The number of software packages grows with each passing year.
Some practice management programs may not be particularly well suited for small equine practices. Features such as inventory control are of less importance when inventory can be readily assessed by looking in the back of one’s truck. Furthermore, some systems require separate software for accounting. Cloud-based accounting software offers features that may make it a reasonable alternative for smaller practices.
Regardless of the convenience of technological advances, equine practitioners will always have to make hard decisions based on factors such as speed, convenience, cost and client perception. With all those considerations, it’s probably good that, when it comes to the horses themselves, the model hasn’t changed in millennia.
Originally published in the December 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!