Applications of the Internet and World Wide Web in Clinical Zoological Veterinary Medicine
Over the past few decades, computers have evolved from a novelty item to essential pieces of equipment. While their use in keeping animal and medical records is well known in zoos, recent explosive growth of the Internet and World Wide Web has led to numerous new applications. These applications include everything from improving animal husbandry, to computer use as a research tool, to a facilitated sharing of information among the international zoo veterinarian community.
Zoo veterinary medicine first used improved technology communications approximately 3 yr ago when the International Species Information System (ISIS) bulletin board system was initiated in Minnesota. Bulletin boards are comprised of a computer with a modem hookup that allows people to call in and access information through their computer and modem. The secure system was structured for zoo veterinarians to type in messages that other zoo veterinarians could later read and post responses. It was a primitive email system that could be accessed by any other zoo veterinarian. For example, if someone wished to obtain comments on a clinical case, diets for a particular species, or discuss husbandry issues, they would post their question on the boards. Over the following week, other zoo veterinarians would read the posted message and submit their responses. However, due to limitations in the number of people who could simultaneously access the site and a difficult interface, the next logical move was to use the World Wide Web (WWW).
Within the past few months, many zoo veterinarians who used the ISIS bulletin board have been using the new WWW-based forum system identified below:
The new site allows multiple users to access it at the same time and it saves on long-distance charges incurred with the Minnesota bulletin board site. The WWW forum also has an easy point and click interface. European and Australian zoo veterinarians are also joining this forum, thus providing international participation. The primary use of the site is for secure communication among peers, much like the Minnesota system.
The American Association of Zoo Veterinarians also has a presence on the WWW (http://www.worldzoo.org/aazv). The AAZV site includes two separate areas: one for public access and one secure site for professional members only. The public access area includes links to other sites such as the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Wildlife Health Information Partnership (WHIP), and ISIS home pages. It also includes an area for veterinary students to access information on the profession, student manuscript judging guidelines, and the externship and residency manuals. The secure area contains information such as the AAZV newsletters, necropsy protocols, the infectious disease notebook, and an email directory for AAZV members. This area is meant to be a central access site of information. For example, if you wish to send an email note to a colleague or one of your institutions’s penguins has died and you don’t have the necropsy protocol, this Web site can be accessed to gain the appropriate information.
Online services are also emerging rapidly. America Online was the first, with the Veterinary Information Network and CompuServe following, with Network of Animal Health (NOAH). These services require payment as you use them and average cost is approximately $250/yr. The services they provide are astounding. The veterinarian has access to board-certified advice and experiences in every discipline of veterinary medicine from veterinarians who have, in many instances, seen dozens to hundreds of similar cases. At our zoo, we use this service for topics that require special expertise, such as dermatology. Smaller zoos with one veterinarian or consulting veterinarians would benefit by subscribing to one of these services as their respective experiences and caseloads in zoo and exotic animal medicine may not be as extensive as colleagues in larger zoos with multiple veterinarians and a variety of experiences. (It is impossible to be an expert in every area of veterinary medicine, much less be an expert on every species, so communication among peers is essential for zoo animal clinical medicine.). The cost is reasonable, considering the value of our animal collections. Hopefully, the two companies will eventually join and make their services available through the WWW. Professional continuing education is also available through each service, thus alleviating inconveniences and costs of traveling to various seminars for continuing education credit. Several useful online service Web sites are listed below.
Besides online services, there are a number of Web sites that offer almost instantaneous access to expert advice in a variety of areas. The pioneer in this area is Ken Boschert, DVM (Washington University, St. Louis, MO). His Web site acts as a central clearinghouse (link site) for massive amounts of information on everything from animal husbandry issues to medical issues. One of the most interesting areas of his site is the electronic zoo. At this site, you click on the picture of the species you are interested in and it automatically gives you a list of Web sites that contain information in that area. You can access these sites on the Web at the addresses listed below:
http://netvet.wustl.edu/e-zoo.html (VIN editor: the updated link is http://netvet.wustl.edu/e-zoo.htm)
Continuing education is available in many forms on the Web. This includes everything from Armed Forces Institutes of Pathology (AFIP) histopathology slides offered over the Web to many “virtual” veterinary centers. The WWW is also where the “First International Virtual Conference on Infectious Diseases of Animals,” hosted by the National Animal Disease Center (NADC), took place in April 1997. The conference included everything from opening remarks to poster sessions, all presented through the Web site. Several of AFIP’s sites and the international conference can be accessed at the WWW addresses listed below.
The federal government has begun to use electronic communications and databases. A Web site was recently set up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which includes all of the current requirements for importation of animals into various states. Zoo veterinarians can now access this site and obtain up-to-date information on tests required to ship out or bring in animals. This is another example of an attempt to centralize information in order to better communicate with the people who need access to it. There is also information at this site regarding international animal trade and how to obtain the necessary permits. Two of USDA’s sites are listed below:
In recent history, education has become one of the top priorities of AZA institutions. This also is true for zoo veterinary medicine. The WWW is one of the best mechanisms for disseminating information to the public regarding what we do, how we do it, and what it takes to follow a similar career path. The following are some of the sites that explain which schools offer veterinary degrees, what zoo veterinarians do, and how zoo veterinarians elect to go into the profession in the first place:
What does the future hold in terms of clinical zoo veterinary medicine and the Web? I feel there will be increased sharing of diagnostic imaging through the Internet. For example, last year our zoo’s male jaguar exhibited hundreds of small mineral densities throughout its body. A local ultrasound expert posted the radiograph on the Web and asked for potential diagnoses. We received dozens of thoughts and comments from human and veterinary radiologists from all around the country. I feel this will become standard practice in the future, including the use of radiograph machines that relay images directly into a computer (currently being used in human medicine). Some sites for this type of information include several listed below:
Also expected to evolve rapidly are computerized specialties known as telemedicine and telesurgery. The field of telemedicine is currently being extensively developed by federal, state, and independent agencies in 40 states while telesurgery is being developed by National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and the U.S. Army. Telemedicine involves a nurse in the patient’s home with a video-equipped laptop and standard telephone lines hooked up to the hospital where the doctor is able to conduct the workup. The nation’s largest hospital company (HCA) is currently refining the technique. The cost of this system has decreased from about $50,000 to $12,500 over the past year and should continue to fall as the technology is developed. Unlike telemedicine, telesurgery is still in its infancy. It involves the use of remote robotic surgical equipment along with high definition video cameras and hookups for surgeries to be performed in remote locations. NASA is exploring this technique for applications in space (such as on space stations or shuttles), while the U.S. Army is considering applications in the battlefield where immediate treatment is essential. Once this technology becomes more refined, there should be no reason not to use it, especially in situations such as the mountain gorilla population in Rwanda or other remote locales with dwindling native wildlife populations. Relevant WWW sites include the following: