There’s a lot of talk again in our industry about the uses of veterinary data. I’ve spent many many hours on this topic over the last eight years and a disproportionate number of them over the last several weeks. I’d like to share my framework for understanding the use of data in our industry.
I’m the Founder of VetSuccess. VetSuccess is a business intelligence and data analytics company. For almost a decade, we’ve been studying the data that comes out of practice management systems (PIMS) in veterinary practices. That’s all we do. We provide meaningful benchmarks, analyze the data, let you know how you’re doing and how to improve.
As a result of our work and tenure, we know most of the people in veterinary data. We both cooperate with and compete, but at the end of the day, it’s a small community. I’ve had colleagues and competitors from Vetsource, VitusVet, Covetrus/VetData, IDEXX, Vet2Pet, Animal Care Technologies, Patterson Veterinary Supply, and Vetstoria read this article before publishing it. They may not 100% agree with everything here, but we’re directionally aligned. (I apologize unreservedly to those I’ve missed while pulling my thoughts together.)
Here, I’ll share some common language and a framework for understanding the veterinary data ecosystem, and identify a couple of guiding principles. The views expressed are mine and VetSuccess’s alone.
The Veterinary Data Ecosystem
When I refer to veterinary data, I mean data that resides in a practice’s Practice Information Management System (PIMS). Examples include:
- Client and patient information
- Reminders, appointments, and other data recorded daily
The data from the PIMS is used by third-party vendor companies like VetSuccess. We’re sometimes called “middleware” because we sit “in the middle” between the PIMS and the Practice. In addition to PIMS companies and Vendor Partners, there are Data Integration services. I’ll describe these below.
PIMS (Practice Information Management Systems). Some of the most common PIMS are Cornerstone, Avimark, Impromed, and Infinity. There are a number of new cloud-based PIMS like eVetPractice, EzyVet, Neo, and Navetor.
Vendor Partners. There are countless companies like VetSuccess that practices work with to support their business. VetSuccess provides data and analytics; others include apps, reminders, home delivery, workflow, diagnostics, and more. These services rely on PIMS data in order to work. Vendor Partners do not have direct access to the data. After a practice gives us permission to do our work, we need a Data Integrator to access the data.
“I’m so EXCITED!! Today’s the day we get to buy a new server and change our PIMS!”…said no practice owner ever.
Data Integrators. Today, most practices still have their own servers in their practice or virtualized offsite. There have been big advances in cloud-based options, but practices don’t relish the idea of changing a PIMS system that’s working. For server-based PIMS, Vendor Partners need a way to regularly access the data. We use data integration companies. These companies have built tools that connect to many or all of the most common PIMS to pull the data. With practice permission, they organize a copy of the data in external databases and share that data with the Vendor Partners. Some integration companies are independent; others are owned by the major PIMS companies (most notably IDEXX and Covetrus).
Guiding Principles for the Use of Practice Data
Two principles strike me as paramount. If a practice wanted comfort around the use of their data, they might insist that a company commit to them.
Principle One: The data belongs to the practice.
It bears repeating. THE DATA BELONGS TO THE PRACTICE. It’s your data. You give us permission to use it, but it’s yours. If you want us to stop using it, just say so. In most cases, this ends the business relationship between the veterinary practice and the company (whether PIMS Provider, Vendor Partner; or Integration Company). Practice data is the key ingredient: for Vendor Partners and Integration Companies, if you don’t want us to have or use your data anymore, we can’t provide service to you. At the end of the relationship, you can even ask for written confirmation that your data has been purged.
Principle Two: Be Transparent.
These two principles—data belongs to the practice and transparency—act as an important check on any PIMS provider, Vendor Partner, or Integration Company’s behavior. Our entire business relies on your permission to use your data. We have to be good stewards and add value. If we don’t, our business is at risk: the implications for us and our families are dire.
A word on data mining. I read as many forums as I can about practice management. Periodically, people will post information about “data miners” and paint all data companies unfavorably, like a fifth horseman of the apocalypse. They imply that we steal client information from practices and sell it to the highest bidder, or sell directly to the practice’s clients.
I highly encourage you, no matter what your role in the industry, to speak to people in the data community. Only work with companies you trust to uphold these principles. In my experience, the community is open, transparent, and willing to talk. You can also ask others for references and their experience with companies you’re considering working with.
Types and Uses of Veterinary Data
Let’s turn our attention to the types and uses of data.
Aggregated vs. Not Aggregated.
Aggregated data is combined and displayed as one number; non-aggregated data is shown as many data points listed individually. If I ask you for a list of canine patients in your practice, that data is not aggregated. If I ask you for a count of those patients, that number is an aggregated number. If you tell me the number is 1,000, you aren’t telling me the names, owners, transaction history, or any other details about the data that’s been aggregated into that number. You’re only sharing data “in aggregate,” as it were, without revealing the underlying parts. Similarly, benchmarks are a form of aggregated data: they don’t identify specific practices, they only tell you information about the practices taken together as a group.
Identifiable vs. Non-Identifiable.
The concept of ‘aggregated’ is related to the concept of ‘non-identifiable.’ Often, a company like VetSuccess will aggregate data to protect the identities of the practices, patients, or pet owners contained within. A list, however, can also be made non-identifiable: this means any identifying information is removed from the list. In the example of the list of canine patients, that would include name, address, pet owner, veterinary practice, and more.
The Baked Cake: Non-Identifiable, Aggregated Data. Non-identifiable and aggregated data takes a large set of data and makes it almost impossible to identify a specific record that went into the data. For example, we might look at the number of canine patients in a practice with a dental transaction, without reporting on any one patient. More commonly, we look at data from a group of practices in a geographic area: for example, companion animal practices in the Atlanta area, with enough data to not identify a specific practice. This data is most frequently used to create benchmarks, make management-level decisions, and for research.
I like to describe non-identifiable, aggregated data as a baked cake. Once a cake is baked, you can’t identify any one of the eggs used in it. Non-identifiable, aggregated data is the same: once it’s calculated, you can’t identify any one of the practices in it.
How do your data partners use that data?
Consider the chart below. Do they use the data with permission or without permission?
VetSuccess never ever (ever, ever) shares data that identifies clients with another party or communicates anything to a practice’s clients without permission. It goes against the guiding principles. We work to get overt permission for everything we do.
Putting it All Together
PIMS, Vendor Partners, and Data Integrators rely on data to provide their service to practices. Two fundamental principles are: the data belongs to the practice, and providers should be transparent about their use of it.
Most, perhaps all data providers, use some form of data aggregation. Most also use data that’s both identifiable and not aggregated. Where data providers use data that identifies clients and patients, they must be transparent about how they use it. Similarly, practices must hold PIMS, Vendor Partners, and Data Integrators to these high standards.
About a year ago, I gave a talk about the new capabilities of the data industry: cheap storage, more computational power, and machine learning. At the end, a gentleman raised his hand and asked: “Why are you telling us about all this?”
“Well,” I said, “you can now have all the insights, efficiencies, and communication tools of the biggest and best-funded companies. It seems like an opportunity worth taking advantage of.”
Practices must have confidence that the data ecosystem acts with integrity along the way. I know my team does, as do many other data teams. We’re doing exciting, meaningful, and valuable work for the profession – to drive compliance, improve customer service, and help veterinary practices compete in the larger market.
If you want to know what we do with your data, read our policies, find us and talk to us. We’ll be happy to hear from you.
Martin Traub-Werner is the dedicated founder of VetSuccess. His number one focus is providing the most value possible to VetSuccess clients – and he loves to talk data so don’t hesitate to contact him.