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March 23, 2014

We’ve all heard of the haptic cow but how about the haptic glove?



Just imagine finishing a full day of consulting without actually having ushered a single patient into your consult room. Picture ending a busy day in practice with sparkling, stain-free scrubs or that ‘aromatic’ aroma of anal glands that persistently populates your nostrils. Struggling? Yes, me too. While such visions of veterinary utopia may seem like a deluded daydream, for some doctors practicing human medicine this is their reality (and no, not just because they don’t tend to squeeze anal glands on a daily basis).

Remote medicine is throwing a modicum of disregard to its name in becoming far more commonly practiced than you might be aware of. It was certainly more than I was aware of before my keen-eyed boss provided me with the latest update from the Sunday papers, confirming that yes, she can indeed find a worthy story everywhere she turns and is in fact a work-a-holic. Already there are doctors who can assess and even treat patients across continents through ‘telemedicine’ devices.  Haptic gloves linked via the internet which enable precise palpation to occur remotely, Bluetooth stethoscopes which transmit real-time heartbeats and high-definition cameras which capture detailed images are just a few of the technological advances that are helping the medics play doctor from a distance.

But what could this mean for the veterinary profession? If we conform to past tendencies and follow in the footsteps of human medicine, it’s not hard to picture the current concerns surrounding the competition from foreign vets seeming like a trivial topic comparative to what could replace it. Not only would we potentially have to worry about vets who have qualified abroad coming to the UK and saturating the job market, we would also have to consider that they could compete from the comfort of their home countries.  Or perhaps the positives on offer will outweigh these potential perils? Ever needed a second opinion from a specialist in Sweden? Or a helping hand from an expert in Ecuador? Ok, maybe not but perhaps this titanic technological shift would be a huge boost for veterinary standards across the world and enable advancing aid to reach areas previously devoid of such skills. Or maybe remote working from home would ensure that women could prolong their careers in practice after starting a family. The possibilities are endless.

On the other hand, it could be that this will be one area in which we won’t mimic the medical profession. Is there something inherent about the treatment of animals as opposed to humans or perhaps about their owners’ preferences that preclude them from this kind of medical attention? It usually boils down to the question of how far owners will go to get the best for their pets and, to quote Buzz Lightyear, this is usually ‘to infinity and beyond’. However, can a pair of haptic gloves or any other form of telecommunication REALLY be a reliable substitute for the living and (hopefully) breathing animal? I suppose amidst a discussion of the potential merits and downfalls of remote medicine, the million dollar question is, ‘How far is too far?’ – both literally and metaphorically. Thoughts on a postcard…