Using health informatics to improve preventive care for companion animals is the focus of Dr. Theresa Bernardo’s work at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).
Bernardo, a professor in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine, holds the IDEXX Chair in Emerging Technologies and Preventive Healthcare – a position recently renewed thanks to a $1.5-million contribution from IDEXX Laboratories Inc.
Bernardo focuses on tackling challenges in access to and integration of veterinary health data from various sources, demonstrating practical use of data for patient health monitoring and preparing veterinarians for success in a tech-enabled world.
“Due to the speed of change in technology, this is a dynamic discipline,” said OVC dean Dr. Jeff Wichtel. “There is enormous potential to improve models of health care and develop digital tools to support these new models.”
When it was established in 2015, the research chair was the first in North America focused on the human-animal bond and the role of technology in animal health care.
The recent funding renewal from IDEXX, a global veterinary technology company that produces diagnostic and information technology-based products and services for the veterinary industry, will support a further five years of training of highly qualified personnel in this growing area of veterinary medicine.
“We are excited to support the discovery, advancement and clinical application of health informatics with OVC through the work of the chair and a brilliant team of scientists. Health informatics holds the potential to enable us to detect disease earlier, when anchored by high-quality diagnostic testing regimens such as wellness and preventive care programs,” said Dr. Jason W. Johnson, IDEXX vice-president and global chief medical officer. “Partnerships like these are so important because they represent our common desire to conduct evidence-based discovery in order to provide veterinary teams with new tools to advance medical outcomes for the patients they serve.”
Greater use of digital technologies to track human health has led to new demand from pet owners to be able to monitor companion animal health as well.
“Our goal is to extend primary veterinary health care beyond the clinic walls, promote wellness and preventive care, and take advantage of early disease detection,” said Bernardo.
Something as simple as monitoring the weight of a dog or cat at home and uploading the data to the pet’s record can provide automatic early warnings of health concerns that may require follow-up with a veterinarian, engaging owners in proactively managing companion animal health.
“By embracing new technologies, veterinarians can also advance preventive care for animals and provide a continuum of care at home,” said Bernardo. “Monitoring diet, weight and activity can be revelatory in animals, just as it has proven to be in people.”
These key parameters are particularly relevant to obesity, considered a “gateway disease” as it is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoarthritis and some cancers in companion animals.
Recently, Bernardo’s team studied the use of various technologies with cats at home, including a digital scale, automated feeder, accelerometer and combined video camera/treat dispenser. Researchers found the technology helped meet veterinary recommendations for weight loss, and pet owners found the automated feeders and digital scales helpful.
For cats, weight concerns can begin as early as six months of age, setting them up for a lifetime of health issues, Bernardo said. “We have extended our earlier research with adult cats to look at development over the first two years of life.”
Emerging technologies also offer the potential for precision medicine, allowing veterinarians to tailor decisions about animal care and treatment to individuals or groups of animals with common characteristics based on lifestyle and environmental data.
Currently, Bernardo’s team is exploring methods to access, integrate and analyze data from wide-ranging sources to make better health decisions based on evidence. The work will delve into predictive analysis, combining data and machine learning to explore risk factors for disease severity and duration.
“Preparing for success in the 21st century includes considering new models of service delivery, new areas of research and ensuring graduating veterinarians have the day-one competencies needed to adapt to this new technological world of health informatics, which includes the use of telemedicine and artificial intelligence,” said Bernardo.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the practice and acceptance of telemedicine, which will have lasting effects on many aspects of veterinary practice, she added.
During a workshop at the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges earlier this year, she outlined a future scenario of integrated veterinary care that incorporates these major trends in health and technology.
“Going forward, we will look at how we can implement ongoing monitoring and preventive health care into veterinary practice and then help create new services that veterinarians can offer from this perspective. The overall goal is to improve our pets’ health span, providing more years of healthy life.”
Dr. Theresa Bernardo