Hi-Tech Veterinary Care

As human medicine races toward an ever-expanding horizon of technology, veterinary medicine is running a close second.  But many veterinarians and pet owners wonder if “hi-tech” will replace “hi-touch”.

Advances in human medicine seem to occur on a daily basis as research and new technology bring new possibilities and hope of healing.  And veterinary medicine and surgery continues to follow closely behind.  Within the past twenty years, new technologies in diagnostics and surgical techniques have made it possible to greatly extend a family pet or animal athlete’s life and competitive career.  But while these new technologies bring hope, they often come with a high price.  And some veterinarians and pet owners are concerned that “hi-tech” with its high cost has taken away from the “hi-touch” that has been a cornerstone of what many deem “the compassionate profession.”

When veterinarians began practicing just twenty years ago, the scalpel was their main tool in the operating room.  Today, laser technology can make it possible to reduce surgical pain and bleeding and shorten surgery time. Endoscopy can retrieve objects from a pet’s gastrointestinal tract and bypass surgery all together.  Arthroscopes and laparoscopes make joint and abdominal surgeries almost seem like minor procedures.

Advances in diagnostics such as ultrasound, echocardiography, and even MRI’s are becoming more and more accessible in veterinary medicine and detect disease processes much earlier.  This means that illnesses such as cancer that once carried a grim prognosis for pets are now considered treatable and often with a good outcome. Tendon and bone problems that once spelled the end of a career for equine and canine athletes can be diagnosed much sooner, often before the animal has any pain, so that treatment begins before devastating trauma occurs.

Laser surgery uses a very intense beam of highly focused light that can cut through tissue. It is especially useful for very small, precise cuts for biopsies, eye surgery, and tumor removal. Because the lasers automatically seals blood vessels and nerve endings as it cuts, there is much less bleeding and pain. Many pet owners don’t mind the additional cost of laser procedures and ask that laser be used on their pets for more routine surgeries such as spays and neuters.

Ultrasound or “sonography” is another advancement that was once found only at university veterinary hospitals or referral practices.  Now the technology is considered a mainstream tool in many veterinary practices.  A device called a transducer sends high frequency sound waves into an animal’s body and measures and interprets the patterns reflected.  A still or video picture is created on a monitor.  Ultrasound is painless and is very safe on such delicate tissues like the eye, spinal cord, and fetuses.  A special type of ultrasound called echocardiography allows a veterinarian to precisely measure heart chambers and view heart valve function which means much better diagnosis for common pet heart problems and more precise treatment.

Radio waves are even helping veterinary dermatologists identify and treat skin conditions in pets.  Mainstream surgical techniques with a scalpel can alter or damage delicate skin tissue, making diagnosis difficult. Board-certified veterinary dermatologist, Dr. Lowell Ackerman, a Boston-based practitioner is thrilled with the advantages of radio waves. “With radio waves, I can cut out any mass or lesion in a cookie-cutter like pattern and not destroy any tissue that I send to a pathologist to be read and identified.”

Even such advanced technologies like MRI’s are beginning to be more common buzzwords and procedures in veterinary practice.  MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, uses magnetic and radio wave technology to produce images of body structures and internal organs from many different angles. The technology goes to the atomic level, which produces much more detailed images than regular x-rays or even ultrasound.

But progress carries a price tag, and with health care costs rising in both human and veterinary medicine, some practitioners and owners wonder if they can afford these miracles of modern medicine and surgery.  Will hi-tech replace good old-fashioned hands-on “hi-touch?”  For example, laser surgery can add another $50-$200 to a surgical procedure.  The cost of an MRI was once $1000-$1200, and even though it is now about half that cost, it is still considered too pricey for some owners.

Dr. Toby Rouquette, an emergency veterinarian practicing in Ft. Worth, Texas, is highly appreciative of new technologies which often makes his job much easier and provides much better patient care than ever before. “Technologies such as endoscopy, ultrasound, and sophisticated patient monitoring systems in both surgery and in our medical wards increases patient care and chances of survival in many cases. But not all clients can afford the additional expense of some procedures- we still need to be very good at traditional surgery, medicine, and diagnostics.”

Some veterinary practitioners are also concerned that new diagnostic and treatment procedures may mean less hands-on expertise and by-pass the importance of interacting with their clients and patients.  They worry that taking a very accurate history from an owner or performing a thorough physical exam may be skills that won’t be emphasized enough in veterinary schools and teaching hospitals.  It is precisely these skills that most pet owners appreciate as the reason many feel that veterinary medicine is often more compassionate than human medical care.