TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: Going mobile—Tech for connecting with clients


It’s only natural that pet owners who do everything else through their smartphones are going to want to interface with their veterinarians and other pet businesses there, too.







Apple first told us that “there’s an app for that” in 2009. Since then, there are even more apps for that—an estimated six million between the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

Millennials may have once driven mobile app-based client service because of their comfort with and love of technology, but these days, app love knows no demographic boundaries. Apps are widely available across all business sectors, including veterinary medicine and pet owners.

There are dog-walking apps (though they won’t actually walk the dog for you), pet healthcare advice apps, pet training apps, pet first-aid apps, pet tracking apps. It’s safe to say that if there’s a pet involved, there’s a pet app for that.

“I think it’s highly dangerous for veterinarians to get left out of that loop,” says Kerri Marshall, DVM, MBA, chief veterinary officer for BabelBark Inc., a pet-related software developer. Marshall, a long-time veterinary management technology consultant who’s been giving talks on tech at veterinary conferences for 15 years, says veterinarians have traditionally been slow to embrace digital technology, but she’s noticed a palpable change lately.

Marshall says her talks used to be sparsely attended, but this year, “It’s been standing room only. It’s a real sea change. Last year, [veterinarians] were saying, ‘Why should I do this? [Digital technology] is just adding to my work load.’ This year, it’s, ‘How do I do it without wrecking my day?’”

Why the sudden reluctant interest?

Simple. “Everything is moving to digital technology,” Marshall says. The widespread adoption of mobile technology, from mobile banking to mobile matchmaking, means it’s only natural that pet owners who do everything else through their smartphones are going to want to interface with their veterinarians and other pet businesses there, too. And pet-related apps aren’t just for pet owners. Within the larger explosion of pet-related apps, there are now client-facing apps that make it easy for veterinarians to move to a digital, mobile practice.

Which apps should a veterinarian who wants to take their practice mobile look at?

Nancy Dewitz, a marketing and technology consultant with Beyond Indigo Pets, a veterinary marketing consulting firm and an AAHA preferred business provider, says it depends on what they want to accomplish. “Are you just getting an app because someone told you that you needed one? Or are you going to use it?” Dewitz asks. With more than 25 years’ experience in information technology, Dewitz calls apps the “bright and shiny of new software” and says they can be attractive to veterinarians just because they’re trendy.

And there can be a certain level of peer pressure involved: “They’ve been told they need an app,” Dewitz says. But she cautions, “Just like when they pick a practice management software or any other product in the hospital, they need to know what they want to do with it so they can pick the appropriate product.”

That starts with understanding how the technology of a digital practice works. And that starts with understanding the vocabulary.

Begin with the basics, such as, what’s an app?

“When most people think of an app, they think [of] a mobile app,” says Vijay Sikka, founder and chief executive officer of Sikka Software Corporation, a company that provides cloud-based business intelligence software for healthcare and small businesses. A healthcare informatics expert with more than 20 years of software development experience, Sikka says, “In our definition of ‘app,’ an app is an application that could run on a browser, which would be a desktop application or a mobile application. An application generally serves one purpose. It is doing something.”

What makes an app able to “do something?” It’s a balance between the app itself on one end (say, a client’s smartphone), software on the other end (such as a hospital’s practice management software [PIMS, which actually stands for process information management software, not practice management software]), and a platform (on which the app runs).

Sikka Software’s core business is, in fact, a platform: Sikka Platform Utility. “We are kind of like a digital marketplace, enabled by a platform, very similar to the Google app store,” he says.

Sikka started with a simple vision: “Help healthcare providers optimize their business via a series of easyto- use, cloud-based applications,” says Sikka. “In due course, it grew into a technology platform, the Sikka Platform Utility. The platform enabled many apps built by us and by our partners.”

Apps “talk” to systems, such as PIMS, through an application programming interface (API). It’s a language, says Sikka, used between two software programs. But none of the 400 or so PIMS out there in the healthcare marketplace, either human or veterinary, have a built-in API that would allow it to communicate with an app. So Sikka Software built compatibility, or adapters, that would enable apps to communicate with all practice management systems.

Once they accomplished that, they created a platform that connects to 96% of the market with an API “layer” that allows anyone to build apps on it.

But doesn’t healthcare have special issues with apps communicating information back and forth from hospitals to cellphones? What about patient confidentiality? What about the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH)? What about compliance?

Sikka Software has that covered. They designed their platform and APIs to be both HIPAA and HITECH compliant. It’s why they wound up specializing in healthcare. It’s a robust platform that makes something very important possible. And that something is a digital ecosystem.

The Digital Ecosystem
As Gartner Research defines it, “A digital ecosystem is an interdependent group of enterprises, people, and/or things that share standardized digital platforms for a mutually beneficial purpose, such as commercial gain, innovation, or common interest. Digital ecosystems enable you to interact with customers, partners, adjacent industries— and even your competition.” In laymen’s terms, a digital ecosystem encompasses all the connections we make daily to achieve shared goals.

How does Vijay Sikka define an ecosystem? It starts with a platform— in this case, his company’s. “If you have a platform, then it becomes easier to have an ecosystem around that platform. Think of it as a community and a group of applications that are using the platform. Some people call that a marketplace, for example, the Google Play Store. It’s a marketplace, but it’s also an ecosystem. It works on an Android device; it does not work on an Apple device.” This would make it a closed ecosystem.

Sikka Software also builds apps that use their platform. And—this is critical—Sikka makes it easy for other software developers to build apps that also run on the Sikka platform utility. That means that anyone who has a good idea for a veterinary app can build that app, use Sikka Software’s HIPAA- and/ or HITECH-compliant API to run on Sikka Software’s platform utility, and boom: that app can now integrate seamlessly with 96% of the PIMS used in veterinary hospitals.

In fact, of the 50 apps Sikka Software sells in its online store, only about 40 were built in-house at Sikka. The rest were built by outside companies to run on the Sikka platform utility. Currently, on the Sikka website, you can get veterinary apps for client communication, patient loyalty rewards, accounts receivable, collection, insurance claims, adjudication and eligibility, recall systems, purchasing, and benchmarking as well as financial service apps, such as Practice Finance and Practice Transitions.

With apologies to Apple, there’s a veterinary app for that.

To build a digital ecosystem around the Sikka platform utility, a veterinarian would go to the Sikka website store and look at the apps available. Then, it’s as simple as choosing the different apps that meet the needs of a particular practice.

Examples of Sikka Apps
Vijay Sikka gave a rundown on some of the apps available from Sikka Software that have been most popular with veterinarians.

The Sikka Software platform is currently compatible with eight veterinary PIMS, including Advantage, AVIMark, Cornerstone, and Vetech, which means it can extract data from all eight. And the Sikka store carries almost two dozen apps specific to the veterinary profession that integrate seamlessly with those PIMS.

Apps come in two flavors: client facing, which means your client would need to download the app to their smartphone so they can communicate with your PIMS, and business facing, which is for internal hospital use only.

“One of the incredible applications we have come up with, which is very useful for a vet, is the whole idea of being able to set fees,” Sikka says. That app is called Fee Optimizer.

Fee Optimizer is designed to provide veterinarians with the most competitive fee recommendations for every procedure they offer. It works by cross-referencing procedure codes and the time spent doing each procedure with zip codes to determine what other practices in a given geographical are charging for each. Because there are no identifiers, there’s no way of knowing which practice is charging what fee for what procedure, so there’s no possibility of price fixing. “We are able to optimize the fee and tell the doctor, ‘Here’s what you should charge for that procedure,’” Sikka says. The cost is $995 per year.

Another popular app is Practice Mobilizer. With Practice Mobilizer, you get all your critical practice information right on your phone anytime, from anywhere you have an internet connection. The app is available from your phone’s app store. The app integrates with 96% of practice management systems and gives you critical data to grow your practice.

Using Practice Mobilizer, you can send procedure videos, messages, and pictures using Sikka Software’s HIPAA- and/or HITECH-compliant messenger feature. An estimation tool lets you see just how close your estimates are to your actual production levels. A scheduling tool lets you see precisely if and when your patients will arrive, so you can adapt and adjust your schedule with real-time arrival updates. The app is designed to help you optimize your practice and maximize your profits. What’s the cost? It’s free.

Practice Optimizer is a particularly popular app, according to Sikka. The basic version, Practice Optimizer Essentials, comes with the tools and reports to help small- and medium-size practices achieve their goals and reach their full potential. It has QuickBooks integration for critical financial information and more than 35 reports and graphs to help your team identify areas of strength and opportunities to grow. Instead of searching for figures and data from many sources, Practice Optimizer consolidates all of your data into one easy-to-use format. It’s a return-oninvestment (ROI) system that includes a fee optimizer, profit-and-loss analysis, and marketing ROI, with the capability of sending regular reports straight to your smartphone.

Practice Optimizer Premium includes all the functionality of Practice Optimizer Essentials but with more detailed reporting and tools for practices both small and large as well as consultants.

Both versions include a fee optimizer tool and a tool called Patients Now, which alerts you to open time slots in your practice schedule and identifies patients to fill the gaps. You can then message those patients directly from the software via text or email. Practice Optimizer Essentials starts at $249 per month for a solo practice, or $2,739 per year.

Apps come in two flavors: client facing, which means your client would need to download the app to their smartphone so they can communicate with your PIMS, and business facing, which is for internal hospital use only.

Client-Facing Apps
Other apps were built by outside developers to take advantage of the Sikka platform utility. One of them is BabelBark.

But BabelBark is more than just an app. It’s a comprehensive software platform with mobile applications, intelligent cloud analytics, and marketing tools that connects pet owners, their dogs, veterinarians, and pet-related businesses in a completely integrated digital ecosystem designed around the unique needs of each dog. BabelBark helps pet owners care for their dogs, veterinarians treat their patients, and pet vendors manage and grow their businesses.

If that seems like a lot, it is. That’s because BabelBark is comprised of three separate apps. The first is also called BabelBark, and it’s an app that clients use on their phones. It includes a pet health monitor, medical history, diet options, and helpful reminders for vaccinations, appointments, and refills. BabelBark links to both veterinarians and local pet businesses, such as boarding kennels and groomers. It is available for free in the Sikka Software store, the Apple App Store, and Google Play Store.

The second app in the BabelBark trifecta is BabelVet, a comprehensive dashboard that downloads to the veterinary hospital’s PIMS system. BabelVet gives veterinarians access to the BabelBark app on the client’s phone. You can monitor compliance, postsurgery care, arthritis, weight management, and more. Medications, medical history, and diet and exercise logs are at your fingertips. A scheduling tool lets clients schedule their own appointments directly. There’s also a prescription-refill tool.

The third app is BizBark, a customer relationship management tool that connects both the client and the veterinarian to small, local pet businesses. The BizBark app works from the business owner’s phone. “A lot of clients are using mom-and-pop businesses around where they live or where they travel. BabelBark allows them to have an online scheduling tool for free,” says BabelBark’s Marshall.

One of the big selling points is “the client shares the vaccination data in their database with whomever they choose as their groomer or boarder or trainer, and they don’t have to call the veterinarian and interrupt their day to fax this information to the groomer or boarder,” Marshall says. “It really saves the veterinarian a lot of time.” Instead of faxing forms, “They can help the pet that’s in front of them.”

BabelBark communicates with the veterinarian through the veterinarian’s BabelVet portal and with the local pet business through its BizBark portal. And of course, BabelVet and BizBark can communicate with each other without requiring same-time input from the pet owner, freeing up their time.

“It’s creating this kind of ecosystem in the community around that pet owner to support them to be the best pet owner they can be,” Marshall says. “It also gives a lot of technology power to independent veterinarians. They can have the [kind of] power that the big corporations have.”

This can be especially useful to the veterinarian who’s overwhelmed by information technology (IT). Marshall worked in IT at Banfield Pet Hospital for 16 years, and she observes, “We had a hundred people on our IT team. You can’t compete with that as an independent practice.”

Like the Sikka Platform Utility, BabelBark is an open platform, which means other software developers can write apps that work with BabelBark. To that end, Marshall says, “We’re creating APIs to connect with other apps. For instance, there are apps that just do medical record transfer [and] apps that do GPS location. Generally, apps are very focused.” A platform like BabelBark can potentially connect all those apps to one digital ecosystem, “so you could have an app within an app.”

Marshall is talking about the future now. “Say we wanted to add live telehealth into BabelBark. We don’t believe in recreating the wheel if there are good models out there. So why not build an API with [a company that’s developed a good telehealth app] and then add it to the BabelBark platform?” And Marshall’s focus is always on a great user experience. “The important part is to make the experience seamless from the point of view of the user.”

And because patient confidentiality is of paramount concern, that telehealth app, like all apps on the BabelBark platform, would connect to the veterinarian through the HIPAA- and/or HITECH-compliant Sikka platform utility.

If you’re still feeling a little buffaloed by the thought of trying to cobble together a digital ecosystem around your practice, you’re not alone.

“I think we’re always quite a bit behind in technology in veterinary medicine,” says Marshall. “[But] right now, we can’t afford to be because everybody is using technology in such different ways, and it becomes so integral to their lives.”

She recalls talking to a millennial veterinarian at one conference. He didn’t believe in treating his own pets, so he took them to another veterinarian, and not necessarily the one down the block. “He told me, ‘I’d drive across town to a veterinarian I could connect with digitally.’”

For Marshall, pet owners who think like that are an obvious wakeup call for the profession. “If we’re not there on that smartphone with them, they’ll find somebody who will be.”

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