Clinical Connections  –  Summer 2022

Dan O'Neill, Dave Brodbelt, Noel Kennedy and David Church, key figures in the RVC’s VetCompass programme, discuss critical milestones since the initiative was launched 15 years ago – and the value of the wider veterinary community in these developments.       

VetCompass (Veterinary Companion Animal Surveillance System) was conceived at the RVC in 2007 with an aspirational aim of harnessing anonymised electronic veterinary clinical records to generate robust clinical evidence that would be generalisable to the wider population of animals. And this concept is now being brought into reality to improve companion animal health and welfare.

With the collaboration of veterinary teams in practices and practice groups right across the UK, as well as internationally, VetCompass has expanded in scope and achievement to shed light on an increasingly wide range of research and welfare questions. This evidence has contributed to our shared human understanding of the causes and solutions to health problems and risks affecting millions of animals.

VetCompass is a not-for-profit research programme, owned and coordinated by the RVC. It draws on anonymised data shared by veterinary practices across the UK and beyond. VetCompass research contributes to a diverse range of undergraduate, MSc, PhD and other research projects both at the RVC and at many other institutions that aim to reveal novel insights into the health of animals.

VetCompass is a widely collaborative project that works alongside other veterinary, welfare and policy communities to provide a robust evidence base that collectively contributes to improved decision-making on animal health issues at a population level. VetCompass contributes to the routine evidence base that veterinarians use in practice every day to support and improve the health and welfare of their patients. To date VetCompass has published over 100 peer-reviewed papers covering diverse companion animal species and topics, with many more in progress.

Origins and expansion     

The VetCompass concept was born as a pilot project running from 2007 to 2010 that included data on dogs from seven veterinary practices in the UK. Information gathered at that point was used to report on antibiotic and glucocorticoid use in small animal practice (Mateus et al., 2011, O'Neill et al., 2012). Building on this early learning, the full VetCompass project commenced in October 2010 with an invitation for any UK practice to join. And UK practices responded in their droves, with offers to join this welfare work and to share their hard-earned veterinary insights caring for individual animals to help revolutionise our understanding of companion animal health at a population level.

Since those early days, VetCompass has rapidly expanded and now covers over 20 million animals across all species from more than 1,800 UK participating veterinary practices – around a third of all UK practices. Epidemiological projects have spanned conditions as diverse as epilepsy, cancer, skin disease, endocrinopathies and heart disease, as well as describing overall disorder prevalence and longevity in different breeds and species.

In addition to sharing results with veterinary colleagues via peer reviewed journals and at national and international conferences, the VetCompass team works hard to share insights with the wider public to inform better decision-making when choosing and caring for their own pets, and to promote wider understanding of disease risks. This wider sharing includes infographics that summarise the core messages from new studies, as well as wide press messaging that routinely includes TV, newspapers and online sharing.

Although veterinary knowledge, techniques and technologies are rapidly evolving to improve the care that can be offered, many animals continue to suffer from disorders that could be reduced or avoided if breed-related or environmental risks were better understood and shared. VetCompass evidence is now a major contributor to the overall evidence base on breed-related health in companion animals, especially in relation to the harms from extreme conformations such as brachycephaly. VetCompass evidence is promoting improved animal welfare through, for example, policy to shift ownership towards higher welfare dog breeds (‘Stop and think before buying a flat-faced dog’ and by contributing to evidence-based updates to Kennel Club Breed Standards as well as to breed health plans at The Kennel Club.

Launched in 2016, the 'VetCompass Australia' project extended the RVC’s international vision for companion animal health data collection for disease monitoring and surveillance. VetCompass Australia supports research projects at all seven Australian veterinary schools and has over 10 peer-reviewed publications.

VetCompass has also extended its research interests from dogs and cats to also cover a wide range of exotic species, with current projects also exploring the health of rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, rats, snakes and tortoises. Looking in the other direction towards larger species, VetCompass projects are also researching the health and care of horses and cattle.

In recent years, VetCompass has made extensive use of machine-learning to make sense of the enormous amounts of data being recorded in veterinary clinics. VetCompass shares clinical data on over 20 million UK companion animals, covering over 200 million clinical notes and half a billion individual sales and treatments – veterinary research is now truly into the Big Data age. We now use machine-learning models of language to identify cases for research and to understand the subtle contexts in which veterinarians mention diseases without implying that their patient suffers from it. We have also created diagnostic tools, such as an endocrine prediction model that can calculate the probability of future diagnosis based on case notes. We have also created a tool for veterinarians which facilitates the process of clinically coding patients and made this available free on the internet.

The critical role of the veterinary community   

Prior to VetCompass, the full potential for the vast wealth of animal health data recorded and stored by veterinary practices was largely untapped. This represented a huge loss for animal welfare, where a deficiency of good evidence was routinely cited as a major limitation to welfare progress. VetCompass has aimed to fill these data gaps by sharing these clinical data in a de-identified format from veterinary practices and merging them into a single dataset to enable research that benefits pets, owners and the veterinary community itself. To facilitate this data for epidemiological research, the VetCompass team developed a secure system for the transfer of anonymised patient records from veterinary practices to a central database.

VetCompass is a community that is committed to open access to all information generated from our research. VetCompass papers are open access for free worldwide impact and are readily findable on the VetCompass library In addition, most papers have an accompanying infographic that summarises the major findings in an easily digestible format and that are open access for anyone to share

A free VetCompass app can be downloaded to IOS or android phones that enable students to enhance their clinical reasoning skills by exploring the anonymised clinical records of over 20,000 dogs from the real first opinion world

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