Making the most of ‘big data’ in veterinary practice and research

Posted on April 25, 2016

Health informatics – the use of large volumes of anonymised electronic health data for research and surveillance – provides new opportunities for veterinary and medical science. It uses ‘big data’ to address key clinical questions, to identify new diseases and new risk factors for established diseases, and to provide opportunities for prospective and retrospective studies to underpin evidence-based medicine. It facilitates sharing of anonymised data and allows participating practitioners to compare and benchmark against other anonymised practices, in terms of demographics, diseases, treatment and outcomes. The medical profession has seized these opportunities to establish the Farr Institute (, a world-leading UK initiative to make sense of electronic health data and build capacity in health informatics.

Veterinary and medical health informatics researchers following the launch of Farr@Vet in Manchester

But what about veterinary health informatics? In recent years there has been an explosion of research and surveillance, driven by the increased recording of electronic data on animal health, and the enthusiasm of veterinary practitioners, owners and keepers, diagnostic laboratories and practice management software companies to help access and make use of it.

Recognising this growing veterinary health informatics research base in the UK, as well as the potential rewards of linking human and animal data together to help achieve ‘One Health’ outcomes, a group of UK veterinary and medical health informatics researchers met on March 9 and 10 in Manchester to discuss Farr@Vet, a new initiative to harness veterinary electronic health data and build capacity in veterinary health informatics. The meeting included veterinary researchers from the Animal Health Trust, the APHA, the universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Nottingham, and the Royal Veterinary College, together with colleagues from Farr@HeRC, the Farr Institute’s node at the University of Manchester.

Farr@Vet recognises the opportunities for veterinary health informatics in the UK, particularly if there is collaboration with the Farr Institute. Key areas discussed at the meeting included the lack of denominator (population size) data for companion animals, the role of coding in data generated by practitioners and other veterinary surgeons, the value of ‘text mining’ to extract meaning from free-text clinical data, and sustainability. A report will be produced following this first workshop and a subsequent open meeting is being planned to share science and identify other interested parties.

Ruth Norris, who works at Farr@HeRC, said, ‘It was very exciting to see veterinary and medical researchers talking about shared problems, and showing a clear willingness to collaborate to solve them.’ Alan Radford, of the University of Liverpool, who helped organise the meeting, said: ‘It was clear from the meeting that there is world-leading research going on across the UK that can tackle many of the key strategic priorities facing our animal populations. Working together with our medical colleagues through Farr@Vet will allow us to deliver the best research, the greatest impact and the strongest evidence-base for practice.’

According to Dr Radford, Farr@Vet is taking its first steps at the beginning of what should be an exciting journey, and the destination is clear. The growing health informatics expertise in the UK, coupled with extremely supportive stakeholders, should see exciting new science originating in practice fed back to practitioners, and filling gaps in the clinical evidence-base.



Stephen Melia

Communications and Public Engagement Officer

Tel: 0161 306 7876

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