Why big data is a big deal for global pet health

Dr Alan Radford is the academic lead at the University’s Small Animal Veterinary Surveillance Network (SAVSNET).

“For many years companion animals have been the poor cousins of population health surveillance. As a result, clinicians and policy makers have often lacked the information they need to make evidence-based choices for the animals under their care, researchers lack a regular data source to better understand disease, and the welfare burden of disease in these populations has often gone unquantified. By their very definition, companion animals have many positive effects on those that keep them. Conversely, when they are ill, this can have profound effects on their owners through cost of care, concern for a pet, and perhaps more directly through zoonotic disease. As a result, lack of data does not just impact on an animals’ welfare but also on that of their owners.

Now a new area of science is seeking to address this gap in data using big data science and the increasing accessibility of electronic patient health records. When a pet animal sees a veterinary surgeon or nurse, a health record is created, and where these are digitised they become accessible for research and surveillance under strict ethical and professional guidelines that maintain owner confidentiality. Health Informatics allows anonymised electronic patient health records to be collected in large quantities and reused for research and surveillance.  Put another way it enables real owners and their real animals to provide a new and desperately needed source of data, which can be repurposed to increase knowledge and improve care of companion animals.

The UK was one of the first to recognise the potential of health informatics research in companion animals, driven largely by the well-developed companion animal sector in the UK; now individual programmes of work are developing in other countries. However, the real power of Health Informatics comes when data are linked together. Here at Liverpool, SAVSNET has recently teamed up with a corresponding Swedish group, Naveda, to develop shared programmes of Health Informatics surveillance, promising, for the first time, the ability to compare the health and welfare of companion animals in the UK and Sweden.

Veterinary health informatics is a rapidly growing discipline and by collaborating with owners, practitioners and laboratories we now have access to a unique data source, and are able to provide new insight into the health of the pet animal populations we all care about. Collaboration with colleagues in Sweden provides a great opportunity to share expertise between our two groups and advance the use of big data for the benefit of animal and human health.”

Find out more about SAVSNET and the new collaborative project with Sweden at: www.liverpool.ac.uk/savsnet.

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