The telemedicine video chat connects a pigsty with Dr. Gabi Doughan, of the state of Iowa, so that Doughan can assess animals and provide training on how to draw blood from pigs. Photo by Dr. Gil Patterson from VetNOW. Bigger picture.
AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine faculty is laying the groundwork to use virtual telemedicine technology to teach students about swine medicine, a method that could boost biosecurity while allowing students to see more cases to be seen as veterinary knowledge with conventional teaching methods.
The use of telemedicine, a range of electronic and telecommunications technologies, to complement the degree in veterinary medicine is still in its infancy, but the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the use and adoption of telemedicine technologies since early 2020.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has enabled veterinarians from the Iowa State’s Swine Medicine Education Center (SMEC) to work with animal precision agriculture company Distynct and the VetNOW Veterinary Telehealth Platform to test the waters. The partnership resulted in a successful proof-of-concept test in October in which a participant successfully learned how to draw blood from a pig while being taught telemedicine technology by a remote veterinarian.
ISU veterinarians develop further technological skills and see a bright future for telemedicine in veterinary medicine.
“Telemedicine is the direction we’re going. It’s the future, ”said Kristin Skoland, program specialist at SMEC. “Especially during the pandemic, people are used to being at home and using conference technology to gain access to resources.”
“Shot in the arm” from the pandemic
SMEC received a $ 240,000 USDA-NIFA Veterinary Services Grant Program to study veterinary telemedicine technology applications ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic has put that effort into full swing. The pandemic restricted veterinarians’ accessibility to farms, and at the same time, people around the world adopted video conferencing technology almost overnight. Both factors made it clear that telemedicine has a role to play in veterinary medicine, said Locke Karriker, Morill Professor of Veterinary Diagnostics and Farm Animal Medicine and SMEC director.
“Before the pandemic, telemedicine was still in its infancy in the world of pig medicine,” said Karriker. “The pandemic shot the project in the arm.”
Meredith Petersen, postdoc at SMEC, took on the task of developing telemedicine skills as part of her doctoral project. She immediately recognized the potential of the technology to offer a number of benefits to pet owners, veterinarians and veterinary students.
Petersen said, for example, veterinary students are given virtual access to more facilities than they can in the real world, allowing them to see more animals and review more cases than would be possible with all-in-person, on-site training. Fourth year veterinary students participate in two-week clinical rotations on farms for hands-on experience. Petersen foresees a future where telemedicine technology will expand the rotation experience and allow students to see what is happening on the farms outside of the two weeks allotted for their rotations.
Telemedicine technology is also allowing more students to tour facilities that may be restricting access due to strict biosecurity measures. In the pig industry, for example, boar studs are kept under strict biological safety due to their value. Telemedicine could enable more students to see how such facilities operate without being physically present.
BJ Brugman and Brian Carr of Distynct and Meredith Petersen of the ISU Swine Medicine Education Center use a unidirectional antenna to amplify the cellular signal, enabling fast and safe wireless capabilities in a pig pen. ISU veterinarians say wireless connectivity is critical to the success of future telemedicine efforts in veterinary medicine. Photo by Dr. Gil Patterson from VetNOW. Bigger picture.
Catherine Neal works for VetNOW, a company that has developed a platform for veterinary telemedicine technologies. Neal had no official veterinary training, but earlier this year she found herself on a pig farm run by the Audubon Manning Veterinary Clinic. Neal showed up with a box of veterinary supplies, a camera, and a speaker and took on the role of a veterinary student to test how well telemedicine technology can teach clinical skills.
Distynct provided the facility with a reinforced cellular connection so that Neal could use the VetNOW platform to communicate with Gabi Doughan, a veterinarian at the Pig Medicine Training Center. Neal watched an SMEC instructional video on how to draw blood from pigs, then Doughan guided Neal through her first real pig blood draw.
“DR. Doughan was at university and could see everything I showed her as I walked through the barn,” said Neal.
Neal successfully completed the blood draw on her first attempt and then successfully completed two more blood draws.
“I was comfortable with what I was asked to do and felt supported throughout the experience,” said Neal, adding that she was receptive to learning additional skills through telemedicine classes.
The future of veterinary telemedicine
Karriker noted that high-speed internet is critical to telemedicine success, but many pig facilities are in rural areas where internet access can be spotty. This can be a challenge as SMEC continues to expand the capabilities of telemedicine.
But now, investing in telemedicine could pay off tremendously in the event of a veterinary crisis like a foreign animal disease outbreak in US herds. Such an outbreak requires enormous diagnostic capabilities, and many in the livestock industry fear that the requirements could push current veterinary infrastructure to the limit. Telemedicine options could allow veterinarians to monitor farm animals in more locations more efficiently, Karriker said.
“What happens next depends on a lot of people working together,” said Karriker. “We have some feasibility studies and believe there is an urgent need to build on them.”