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NZ-made virtual vet nurse launches to help struggling vets

Demand for medical care does not stop for a lockdown, and many medical facilities have sought ways to continue functioning by adopting new technologies to help get them through COVID-19 alert levels 4 and 3 in New Zealand.

And it’s not just humans who need care – veterinary practices have gone through similar digital transformation journeys to ensure their furry patients are looked after – with the Virtual Vet Nurse solution being a perfect example.

This Virtual Vet Nurse – named Sophie – is a conversational chatbot developed with Kiwi-grown technology, and is being launched this week free of charge ‘for the next couple of months’.

Sophie can be deployed within any New Zealand vet clinic, where she can be cloned with a new name and gender. Her main role will be to support teams as a first point-of-contact for client enquiries.

Sophie was created by Ambit, a conversational AI company known for its ‘smart AI bot’ technology.

“We felt the veterinary profession was a natural fit for this technology,” says Steve Merchant, a veterinarian who teamed up with Ambit to develop Sophie.

“There are around 450 vet clinics in New Zealand. They are mostly SME-sized businesses that operate with high overheads – they’re essentially providing mini-hospitals, but unlike human healthcare, they receive no subsidies,” says Merchant.

“Using a Digital Employee is one way for clinics to gain extra team members, for a low cost.”

While Merchant concedes the skills of a human vet nurse can never be replicated by a virtual one, the wide range of support that they offer could be critical for vet practices struggling in the face of COVID-19.

“We’ve designed Sophie to be the first point-of-contact for client enquiries…she can make bookings, organise repeat prescriptions, and answer some general pet care questions,” says Merchant.

“Like any new employee, she’s learning on the job.”

Studies have shown that as much as 80% of client enquiries are for the same 20 or fewer questions, and almost half of consumers would rather use a messaging app than a phone call to communicate with a business.  

As a product of artificial intelligence (AI), digital employees also reap the benefits of becoming ‘smarter’ over time – learning from their experiences with customers and becoming more sophisticated and efficient all the while.

“We’re excited to be part of the journey with Virtual Vet Nurse, which will help support vets in running their business, and provide their clients with another channel of communication,” says Ambit chief executive officer Tim Warren.

“Recent events with COVID-19 have really highlighted the potential for this technology. 

“And for those of us with pets, we look forward to a frictionless experience with our local vets.”

Virtual Vet Nurse has already been deployed in two Auckland veterinary clinics, and the technology is now being made available to a wider number of New Zealand clinics.

“Like everybody, veterinary teams are doing their best to cope with additional pressures from Covid-19,” says Merchant.

“So, we thought we’d offer this service free-of-charge for the next couple of months. This deployment will also help enhance our technology in these early stages, so it’s a win-win.”