Healthtech/Analysis/

Vets are burning out — startups want to help

Startups in the vet care space need to move carefully because of regulation, but are making a change

By Adam Green

The working lives of vets are extremely tough. Burnout, compassion fatigue and long hours filled with urgent requests and anxious owners are emotional drains. But the work itself can also be very fragmented and random, increasing on-the-job stress.

“On any given day, you can have any person with any animal come through your doors, requiring any combination of thousands of products and services. These are small businesses having to confront an incredible level of operational complexity,” says Thom Jenkins, vet and co-founder of PetsApp, a London-based SaaS company offering workflow and communications software to the industry. “Think of the logistics of being able to vaccinate an animal versus fixing a broken leg. That animal comes in, and that day you’re taking x-rays and you may be going to surgery. That’s not the case in a human GP practice.”

The combination of emotional burnout and work stress may be among the reasons why the profession has a very high suicide rate. “People come to the profession with incredible hopes — for many of us it was our dream since we were little — and in many cases the dream has turned into a nightmare,” says Jenkins.  “We cannot ignore the manner in which our colleagues are suffering.” There is also a high level of churn, according to David Prien, founder of FirstVet.

PetsApp, which raised $4.4m in a December seed round led by VC Point Nine Capital, is using software to help vet practices deal with their daily toils. “Nine times out of ten, an inquiry is not an emergency. It’s someone asking about vaccination prices, or requesting more medication — important things, but not ones that need to have disrupted your day,” Jenkins explains. “If we can direct as much of that through to asynchronous [digital] formats, they can then prioritise that at a glance and have more control over their workflows than the telephone would allow.”

The PetsApp dashboard integrates everything from billing and chat tools to medication reminders. It draws from Jenkins own experience of best practices as a vet across Europe, the US and Asia, which he sought to encapsulate into “scalable, repeatable software with sufficient flexibility to deal with operational complexity of vet clinics”.

Physical beings with physical needs

PetsApp is one of the many European startups in the vet-tech space. Some, like the UK’s Vet-AI, are using machine learning to offer pet parents symptom checkers and connect them with vets at any hour of the day. Sweden’s FirstVet is another well-funded digital vet clinic that, following a doubling of revenue over the last year, is now trialling an ecommerce offering alongside its clinic app.

“You need to build a deeper relationship with users. We noticed early on that about 40% of consultations ended with a product recommendation,” says Prien of the trial. Other startups are diversifying from other sectors into healthcare and wellness, including Portugal-based direct-to-consumer food company Barkyn and insurer Bought by Many, which could lead to further reshaping of the market.

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Startup’s ability to disrupt the vet industry is made slower by regulation, however, especially in Europe. There is some regulatory conservatism in terms of authorising new players in the vet space, especially when it comes to prescribing.

“US regulations are developing way quicker than in Europe,” says Prien. “Several US states have opened up the vet-patient relationship to allow companies to directly prescribe. That is changing the balance between physical and digital care providers.” Prien believes that allowing new players to enter the market and offering more services in terms of direct prescribing will drive innovation and push vet clinics to be more customer-centric.

“In some European countries, vets cannot even give advice over the phone”

The slower pace of reform in Europe is an understandable caution in terms of maintaining standards in healthcare. But there might also be some turf protection or unnecessary scepticism, as regulators tend to listen to veterinary associations for guidance, given the niche nature of the sector. This is leading to rigidity that could be disadvantageous to vets, pets and owners. “In some European countries, vets cannot even give advice over the phone,” says Prien. “A conservative approach is at its core good, but it’s not up to date”.

For Jenkins, technology is a tool not to displace vets, but to help them. While there are a growing number of “vets in the cloud”, he believes “pets are physical beings with physical needs that need to be addressed by physical vet clinics. And a physical clinic that embraces innovation and joins together online and offline offerings, is going to be very hard to disrupt.”

Vets, far from resisting technology or new ways of working, are seeing its benefits, he says. “We often have this narrative that we’re slow to adopt technology, we are conservative as a medical profession. But we haven’t really seen that. We’ve seen clinics embrace and use this in ways that we never thought they would. They’ve taught us and they’ve led how the product has been developed”.

Maija Palmer is Sifted’s innovation editor. She covers deeptech and corporate innovation, and tweets from @maijapalmer

This article first appeared in our monthly Unleashed Pet Tech newsletter, a collaboration with Purina Accelerator Lab. All content is editorially independent. Sign up to our newsletter here to keep up to date with the latest goings on in the European pet tech industry.

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