COLLEGE STATION, October 16 - Soon, when your pet is sick, your veterinarian will have a powerful new tool to find out what's wrong - his personal computer. "Associate," a computer program developed at Texas A&M University, analyzes symptoms or laboratory results input by veterinarians and produces a list of likely diagnoses.
"The program speeds up the time it takes to figure out what's wrong with an animal," said Craig Carter, head of epidemiology and informatics, Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. "Help sorting through the many disease possibilities can be especially important when the animal has a rare disorder or presents symptoms that are unfamiliar to a particular veterinarian.
"We called our program 'Associate' because it's like having another professional in the next room to consult on difficult cases," he observed. "That's especially useful to rural solo-practitioners, who may be geographically isolated from colleagues."
Carter, who is also a computer programmer, began to write his first computer diagnostic program in 1983, later enlisting the help of the late Jerry Rubin, a practicing veterinarian.
"Dr. Rubin ran a specialty clinic in Dallas and brought 50 years of experience to the project," Carter said. "He helped build the knowledge base for the initial program."
Carter and Rubin took a full species approach to their project, attempting to catalog every known disease for both cats and dogs.
"The axes of information for each disease include a description of symptoms, clinical and laboratory findings, recommended treatment and a bibliography," Carter said. "Everything in the database is backed up by veterinary literature.
"A standard lexicon drives the system," he continued. "That means that the same terminology is used in every instance, across species, breeds and diseases. That was the hardest part of the project - nailing down the nomenclature for all links."
By 1989, the partners had the canine database of their program ready for use by practicing veterinarians. They formed a company, Texas Medical Informatics, and introduced their product at the 1989 convention of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) in San Antonio. They sold 10 copies on that first outing and got "good feedback" from their customers.
"We finished the feline database and marketed this DOS-based version until 1997," Carter said. "By that time, over 1000 clinics were using 'Associate'. Veterinarians loved it, especially for the tough cases."
But 'Associate' was a labor of love for Carter, a love that took increasing amounts of his time. So, in 2001, he merged Texas Medical Informatics into California-based Veterinary Information Networks (VIN), consultants and providers of on-line continuing education for veterinarians. VIN also maintains searchable on-line versions of 80 professional veterinary journals.
Carter and programmers at VIN have been working to produce a Windows-based version of 'Associate', available now in beta form over the Internet.
"The full Windows-based version will soon be out, available over the Internet or on CD-ROM," Carter said. "Veterinarians will be able to use the program like a textbook to look up full descriptions of any canine or feline diseases. Or they can input information about an animal, including its history, findings of their physical exam and results of laboratory tests. 'Associate' will then generate a list of possible diagnosis.
"The great thing about 'Associate' is that a veterinarian can keep inputting additional data and narrow the possible diagnosis," he continued. "With roughly 600 recognizable diseases in each species, evidenced by 20 to 30,000 findings, the human mind can't deal with it all. The computer can be an invaluable diagnostic tool."
Carter cited the possible benefits to animals and their owners as immense.
"Once the veterinarian has the program, its use is free, quick, non-invasive and safe," he said. " 'Associate' can bring to mind diagnoses a veterinarian might not even be considering, resulting in better case work-up and helping avoid mistakes.
"And there are unlimited possibilities to grow the program, extending it to all types of exotic species. The driving force behind 'Associate', though, is the veterinarian's conviction that animals and their owners deserve the best care out there - we're just offering one more tool to make that care a reality."
Materials provided by Texas A&M University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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