Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory works behind the scenes of big data | VTx

Data has a huge influence on the future of veterinary medicine, impacting everything from epidemiology to predicting disease in individual animals. Technology has allowed veterinarians to share information like never before and has facilitated exciting research, and the Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine helps make it happen.

Thanks to a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory, the lab runs the veterinary extension of SNOMED-CT, an international health care terminology for data management systems. SNOMED-CT is “the most comprehensive clinical terminology in use around the world” and is used in over 50 countries for data access and management.  

The veterinary extension was created when the Department of Agriculture established the National Animal Health Laboratory Network and found a need for a standard veterinary terminology. The network seeks to achieve early detection, response, and recovery from animal health emergencies. It continues to develop and add more and more diseases, and standard terminology is necessary to use its data.

“We all need to use the same words and speak the same language in order to communicate with each other and pool the data, and that’s what standards allow us to do. Standards are really about interoperability and being able to use the data together, no matter what system it comes from,” said Julie Green, research assistant professor of veterinary medical informatics at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.  

Green is the director of the Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory, working alongside Wayde Shipman to develop and maintain the veterinary extension of SNOMED-CT. The extension is a standard terminology that has been translated into several languages for international use. In fact, industry juggernaut Mars Veterinary Health is currently implementing SNOMED-CT and the veterinary extension into its software system for its network of European practices.  

Why is the lab’s work important? It’s simple: Better data equals better research. Academic studies in veterinary medicine can be limited to small sample sizes and can be limited in scope, and they do not necessarily reflect the care in general practice. Through the study of large amounts of data sourced from practitioners, veterinarians can develop evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based medicine draws from research to combine patient needs, clinical expertise, and best evidence to care for patients.  

The lab is part of the small field of veterinary informatics, which studies animal medical information and focuses on practice management systems, diagnostic assistance, drug information systems, and teaching tools. Green said part of the reason the field is so small is because compared to human medicine, the veterinary medicine field is far from tech savvy.  

“When I went into practice in ’99, my first practice didn’t even have a computer. I got the first software system for them — and even then, we just used them for billing. There are a lot of practices today that just use computers for billing and reminders and do everything else on paper,” said Green.  

A small number of veterinarians are trained in the field, and the Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory is the only team in the world dedicated to developing a veterinary extension.  

The veterinary college has been involved in veterinary informatics from its inception. At the college, Richard B. Talbot may be remembered for his leadership as the founding dean, but he was considered a pioneer in veterinary informatics and served as president of what is now the Association for Veterinary Informatics.

Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Wilcke is also hailed as outstanding in the veterinary informatics field. Wilcke was involved in the early days of SNOMED and founded the Veterinary Terminology Services Laboratory. Green, who also earned her D.V.M. from the college, was one of Wilcke’s advisees while earning her master’s degree in veterinary medical informatics.

Though it remains a small field, veterinary informatics has experienced a surge in recent years, in part because organizations like the American Animal Hospital Association began pushing for more standardized data keeping.

“The world in general is so connected, and as we are graduating veterinarians who grew up doing work on their phones or their computers, they are getting into practice and being shocked by the fact that our data is so unusable. I think that realization has become more obvious to practitioners over the years,” said Green.

Veterinary practices can be hesitant to share data out of a fear that external organizations will use or abuse their clients’ personal information. However, like in human medicine, it’s possible to depersonalize data to protect personal information. Green said more and more practitioners are warming up to the idea of sharing data.  

“Having the ability and the willingness to share data and pool it — that’s how we’re going to get truly evidence-based medicine.”

Written by Sarah Boudreau


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