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Digital Innovation – A Vet Student’s Perspective

German Shepherd sitting on a lawned area

As a vet student with a keen interest in all things tech, I was thrilled and intrigued when I heard about plans for a new venture in veterinary technology to be based at the University of Surrey. The Veterinary Health Innovation Engine (vHive), is an exciting new partnership between the university (incorporating specialist input from the School of Veterinary Medicine, Centre for the Digital Economy at the Business School, the 5G Innovation Centre) and Zoetis Centre for Digital Innovation).

The aim is to create a platform of open innovation and collaboration amongst field experts working towards improving animal health and welfare. This innovation can be broadly divided into three areas of interest; Research and surveillance (delivering better health outcomes to animal populations and individuals), new commercial opportunities (delivering new products and services, creating new jobs and businesses) and new opportunities in education (promoting learning in animal health for undergraduates, postgraduates and practising professionals in the veterinary and animal health arena). To my delight, over the past year I have been given the opportunity gain some experience in all three of these areas. For my 3rd year research project at vet school, I have been working closely with Dr Ingrid den Uijl, and also with Dr Constanza Gomez Alvarez and Professor Alex Cook (Head of vHive) who are both involved in research in  vHive and the biomechanics lab.

Primary Focus

My research with vHive is related to the validation of a collar-worn accelerometer device for dogs known as PetDialog+. PetDialog+  tracks the dog’s movements, syncs the data via Bluetooth to a smartphone and differentiates between eight different states of behaviour; eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, running, sprinting, head-shaking, and static. Changes in behavioural patterns may lead to early warning signals for change in a dog’s health or welfare. To me, it is evident that the potential impact of technology such as this is huge.

The move away from subjective welfare scoring to objective welfare scoring is one that is widely sought after, with the RSPCA acknowledging that;

“The need for reliable, objective, national data on key welfare-related issues is… self evident”, further stating that “this is a challenge and whilst the process of accumulating data combined with producing sound and objective methodologies is not simple, it should not be a barrier to producing robust facts and figures.” (RSPCA 2009)

Future possibilities

Wearable technology such as the Apple Watch and FitBits in human medicine and PetDialog+ in veterinary medicine is one field that I find particularly exciting. Smartwatches are now commonplace and the potential applications of big data sets of global activity data that could be collected by wearable technology are endless. Furthermore, tech companies have spotted the opportunity for a completely revolutionised human health system, with CNBC recently reporting that Apple has plans for the iPhone to become the “one-stop-shop” for all your medical info.

The use of digital technology for human health (including wearables, apps and ever-advancing sensors) has grown exponentially over recent years, with an estimated 10.9 million FitBit devices sold in 2014 alone, therefore, in the spirit of One Health, it seems only natural that veterinary medicine should eventually experience development in a similar fashion. But by far, the most exciting part of this for me is that it’s real, and it’s happening right now. This is not just the latest money-making tech craze to come out of Silicon Valley, or an idea that may or may not come to fruition in 10 or 20 years time. This is an opportunity for vHive, and vet students like me, to make a real difference to animal health and I feel very lucky and proud to be able to engage with it at this early stage in my veterinary career.

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