Human over Machine

Mike Pownall, DVM, MBA
Partner, Oculus Insights; Co-owner, McKee-Pownall Equine Services

Education: Ontario Veterinary College; University of Western Ontario, Richard Ivey School of Business

AI Mission: Equip veterinarians to use technology so they can focus on patient care and net more outstanding professional outcomes.

Veterinary medicine is a tough profession. Anyway, that's how Dr. Mike Pownall sees it. And he should know. He runs three equine veterinary clinics with his wife, Dr. Melissa McKee, in the greater Toronto area. Their practices comprise 12 veterinarians and 35 support staff. In addition to practicing veterinary medicine, Dr. Pownall presents internationally through Oculus Insights on business strategy, human resources, pricing, digital marketing and technology for veterinarians. You also can see him blogging or podcasting as part of his consulting role.

Being a self-described “big fan” of technology, Dr. Pownall stays close to advances on both the clinical and business side of veterinary medicine. Still, he doesn't see technology – artificial intelligence included – as a panacea. Here's his take on why.

— Bowman Report

Pownall's words: AI is secondary

In business, we always get focused on the technology. Veterinary medicine is still a people business and it always will be. Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to be a tool for veterinarians, but only as a tandem of computer and person. The machine learning aspect of AI simply augments the human element. The person is integral to help interpret the outputs and to communicate them to a client.

My veterinary practice was the first in Canada to use mobile digital radiography. We spent about $100,000 Canadian on the system in 2004 when our practice was just two years old. That digital radiography system gave us a real advantage over competition in the first couple of years.

Even still, I told my staff every single veterinary practice would have the same technology in a number of years, so the advantage wouldn't be long-lasting. Instead, we need to emphasize the relationships we develop with clients, the customer service we provide, and the humanness about us. These are the elements that will keep us prospering.

"[We] need to emphasize the relationships we develop with clients, the customer service we provide, and the humanness about us."

Many clients – then and now – assume all veterinarians have the same education, capabilities and diagnostic equipment. They often choose one veterinarian over another because of the doctor's bedside manner and ability to communicate. That's how it was then, and it will be no different with AI in 10 or 20 years.

Talk the talk

AI may change the veterinarians' roles in the future. A lot of new veterinarians come into our practice who aren't highly attuned to all the modalities. When they see a patient, they move straight to requesting advanced imaging, like an MRI or CT, without getting a sense of what's going on with the animal.

A veterinarian's relationship to the animal is more important now than it was 15 years ago and it's going to get even more important. As a result, veterinarians will be even more crucial to emphasizing the human animal bond. We will receive information from AI, and the information may point to a bad prognosis for an animal. We are the ones who will communicate this to clients and discuss the options. We will bring the human element of AI to veterinary medicine.

In human medicine, most patient complaints ultimately relate to poor communication. The same will happen increasingly in veterinary medicine. The veterinary industry and education system need to cultivate a new generation of veterinarians who possess empathy and excellent communication skills. A veterinarian's people skills will remain one of the biggest values they offer – even bigger than it is now.

Some veterinarians worry that technology will cut jobs. It won't. But AI will hasten the exit of veterinarians who don't have a strong bedside manner. Regardless of age or generation, veterinarians who are poor communicators and can't bridge the gap between AI and the pet owner are going to struggle.

"AI will hasten the exit of veterinarians who don't have a strong bedside manner ... who are poor communicators and can't bridge the gap between AI and the pet owner ..."

Next-gen education

A lot of people go to veterinary school because they don't really like people. They prefer animals. Client communication is challenging for many veterinarians, and we'll need to focus on it more in our education system.

In addition to helping veterinarians learn to be strong communicators, we need to train them on how to identify and use good data. The need for this training already exists. Activities on social media and the internet mean that we're bombarded with so much data we can't always determine what's real and what's not. Veterinarians need analytical literacy as a core skill to get to the truth. This need will be magnified with AI. Veterinary schools must help us make this change.

Alternatively, veterinary schools are already using AI to advance medical training. AI allows for the modeling of bones and anatomy and for simulating surgeries, procedures or disease effects without needing to use live animals.

Today's uses

Within the veterinary profession today, practices are already starting to use AI. The vast majority is with medical records and transcriptions. Veterinarians spend so much time transcribing medical records. AI can transcribe at something like 99 percent accuracy. This could save veterinarians an hour a day by avoiding the need to touch medical records to correct mistakes or terminology.

Some human medicine and veterinary clinics are using AI for online customer service. When clients visit a practice website, for example, an AI bot starts the conversation and begins gathering context.

I envision AI expanding in its ability to help veterinarians run their practices. For example, in the very near future, practices will be able to use AI data to assess the health of the business, identify areas of under-performance, and help determine what is interfering with that performance. This is a big pain point for many practice managers, and I think this kind of AI will help quite a bit.

Hopefully veterinarians will see the evolution of AI being a win for everyone. Take wearable devices for pets. If a veterinarian can analyze information from the device to diagnose a condition more quickly and with fewer tests, the client is happier. The veterinarian is too because he or she can see more patients in a day.

Similar to the transition to digital radiography, many veterinarians at first questioned whether the outlay was worth it. Then they saw that it helped them practice medicine plus made their life easier. As I reflect on AI, as a veterinarian, I would enjoy the benefits it offers me, my patients and my clients.

Hurry up and wait

While AI is a hot topic, we should temper our anticipation, because we may wait decades for AI to make its full impact. I illustrate this with the automotive industry. Car companies are 80 percent prepared with self-driving car technology, but the remaining 20 percent is significant. They expected to have that technology completed within a couple of years, but now the message is that the delivery date is still many years out.

The other major hurdle of AI is ensuring veterinarians understand how to differentiate between good and bad data. Both veteran and future veterinarians need this skill, and our industry needs to figure out how to provide that training.

"Like anything new, AI will be disruptive. ... It's going to take someone like Steve Jobs to produce a smart phone and then we'll all think, 'Oh yeah, that's how we're going to use it.'"

Like anything new, AI will be disruptive. I truly think we don't yet recognize what will come out of it. We're looking at it through a lens of what we already know. It's going to take someone like Steve Jobs to produce a smart phone and then we'll all think, “Oh yeah, that's how we're going to use it.”

AI will definitely make the profession incredibly exciting in the coming years. Regardless of the amount of time it takes, AI is coming. Resistance is futile. We'll be better off accepting it and finding the opportunities within it.

Leave a comment