Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Mitchell Sigley grew up hearing his parents, both vets, frequently bemoaning the tedious task of writing up consult notes. One day, with his background in mathematics and statistics, he decided to do something about it—and the VetNotes app was born. By Kathy Graham
Most vets will tell you they hate writing up case notes, and the parents of Mitchell Sigley are no different. Sigley, the creator of the new clinical notes app for veterinarians, VetNotes, says his parents, both small animal vets, complained all the time. “As I like to say to my parents, ‘I’ve got two decades of experience hearing how much vets dislike taking notes.’” But it was when Sigley—whose academic background is actuarial science, having “loved coding and programming since I was probably 13”—heard about a new tool that summarises meetings, he had the idea to develop an app.
“Two things collided, really. The first one was two decades worth of hearing mum and dad talk about their massive time investment in taking notes. Then in May, I heard about a new tool that had come out that would summarise meetings. Like if you had a Zoom meeting, it would automatically write you a summary of what happened at the end. So that’s where I got the idea. I thought, ‘What about instead of a Zoom meeting, a veterinary meeting?’ And instead of extracting the objectives or the action items out of a meeting, how about it extracts the symptoms, the treatments, and the diagnosis out of a veterinary consultation.”
Wasting no time, Sigley wrote his first line of code that same month. But not before he was sure he wasn’t reinventing the wheel. “I researched what vets currently use, and also what’s being used in adjacent industries. The current veterinary voice-to-text landscape is basically that where vets plug a microphone into their computer, talk into that microphone and the words will go onto the page.”
But, as Sigley says, these microphones are expensive. More crucially, traditional dictation software doesn’t format or edit information. “So, if you say, ‘um’ or ‘uh’, it’ll go onto the page; there’s no intelligence factor in there. Or if you forget to say something and then you say it at the end, it won’t reorganise that information up to the top or middle where it should be; you have to say it perfectly the first time.”
Which of course very few veterinarians can do. VetNotes on the other hand, records the voice “but then adds an intelligent layer on top”. Sigley says VetNotes’ biggest innovation is that it can be used to record audio during an entire consultation with a client. Then, using a transcript of who said what, “it goes through an algorithm which extracts the clinical insights, namely things like symptoms, complaints, clinical exam findings, treatments that were given, assessments, diagnosis.” So it extracts the key information, and formats that into dot points to create a clinical summary. Sigley likens the app to “having a note-taking assistant sitting in the consult room and taking notes for you”.
VetNotes is accessible through the web, and since vets tend to use it both on their phone (for recording) and their computer (to be transferred to their records), the information is synced between both. Some vets have their own template they like to use and can provide to VetNotes to fill, or they can use the VetNotes version.
To get to this point of ease of use and accuracy, Sigley says he’s had to overcome some challenges, in particular “extracting the clinical insights from the chitchat that goes on in a consultation, because obviously vets are often quite good friends, or they know their clients on a personal level, so there’s often a lot of talk which isn’t specifically related to the vet’s notes. And at the start, VetNotes was putting all that in. There’d just be stuff that was irrelevant like, ‘The client went to Hamilton Island last weekend,’ but then through the iterations and the changes that I made, I was dialling in the ability to discern relevant clinical information from chitchat or stuff that didn’t need to go into vets’ notes.
“It was very challenging,” he continues. It took countless hours of trial and error to get it to be consistent and reliable.”
Happily, his parents willingly agreed be his guinea pigs. “I was honestly really lucky to have mum and dad as my first users, because at the start VetNotes was really bad. It just didn’t do a good job whatsoever. But over a couple of months of really dialling in the algorithm and tweaking and testing and back testing, I got it to a point where it was consistently useful and value-adding for vets.”
Sigley is (at the time of writing) preparing to launch a function that will facilitate integration of VetNotes with vets’ practice management software, given “vets don’t have the time or desire to learn a new piece of software. So basically what I’m creating is a plugin or an extension they can use so that VetNotes will just sit alongside their existing PMS; they can make a recording and it will automatically insert the VetNotes information into that.”
Sigley says the feedback he’s received from vets using his app has been quite heartwarming. “Some people say, ‘This is an absolute game changer. I absolutely love it. This helps me focus on the patients and the clients instead of having to think about what I’ve got to write up.’ Honestly, it’s probably about once a week I get an email that’s maybe one or two paragraphs just saying, ‘Mitch, this is amazing. Thanks so much.’ Which, honestly, just on a personal level is really nice. It’s lovely to be getting that sort of feedback. And I guess actually, really, for me it’s encouragement to keep going and to keep improving it.”