January 2016
From the State Vet's Office

Back to the Future

Would somebody just give me a piece of paper to hold?

I grew up in a unique time. I suppose everybody did. But as a 5- or 6-year-old kid, I was not able to appreciate the irony in the proximity of two of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons. Even though my goal in life was to be a cowboy, I always enjoyed watching "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons." I missed the irony of how one show was someone’s idea of a mixture of modern-day society lived out in the Stone Age. The other show was someone’s imagination of how life would be far into the future. I probably have a little difficulty relating to the Flintstones, although I did once have a car that reminded me a little of the one Fred drove. But I think we are not too far away from the Jetsons in a lot of ways. I feel like, in my 55 years on Earth, I have seen us come from just past Bedrock, home of the Fintstones, to Orbit City, where George Jetson and his family lived.

When I came to work at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries in the mid-1990s, we were still doing a lot of brucellosis and TB testing. And all of the test results had to be entered into an old USDA prototype of a database and then the papers were stored in filing cabinets. There was a room on the second floor of the Agriculture Department building that probably had 40 of those four-drawer filing cabinets full of test charts. And I recall two very nice ladies, Beverly Downs and Teresa Price, who spent all day, every day, entering test results and filing the paper copies away. I guess it’s just a matter of personalities, but, if I did that all day every day, there is no way I could have been as pleasant as those ladies always were when I was around them.

And then there were the health certificates that were kept in filing cabinets. Remember we work for the government. That stuff about everything in triplicate is pure myth. It is four copies instead of three. Health papers have always required one copy to go with the shipment, one copy to go to the state of destination, one copy to stay in the state of origin and the veterinarian who writes the certificate keeps a copy. So we were filing copies for animals leaving the state and coming into the state. Keeping up with all those paper copies is fairly labor intensive, but it has served us well over the years. That system allowed us to trace diseased and exposed animals at the speed of … well, sometimes not too fast. Nonetheless, we were always able to trace the animals we needed to find and test, quarantine or whatever the situation needed.

Fourteen years ago when I became the State Veterinarian, I had this idea about doing electronic health certificates that could be done on a computer and would do away with some of the mountains of paper. I approached one of the IT (computer section) guys at the Agriculture Department with a sketch of what I had on my mind. He said it would be no problem. So here we are, 14 years later, getting ready to roll that out for everyday use. There are companies that have marketed this type of computer-based health certificates to veterinarians for a few years. I hope to be able to provide that at no cost.

We also have the technology through radio-frequency identification devices such as ear tags that can be read and recorded by an electronic reader and downloaded to a computer with whatever pertinent information needed. Not only do you not need a filing cabinet, since all this information can be filed electronically, you don’t even need a pencil or pen. I often mention that we are raising whole generations of kids who will never know the sound of fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. Along that same line of thinking, we are about to bring on a whole generation of veterinarians who cannot relate to cow manure or blood stains on test charts because they will all be done electronically.

Today, most of our diagnostic lab reports are sent electronically by email. We still have issues that sometimes slow our process down due to budget cuts and loss of key personnel. But, when we get the reports, if you have an email address, you won’t have to wait for the U.S. Postal Service. As soon as our labs get the reports ready, they hit "send" on their computer and the report is in your inbox. In addition to this method of information delivery being more efficient, it has saved us a significant amount of money previously used to buy stamps.

When I started at the Department of Agriculture and Industries, I was given a beeper. I knew when it beeped and I saw Dr. Alley’s, Dr. Cheatham’s, Dr. Smith’s or Dr. Wilson’s number on the display, I needed to find the nearest pay phone and call Montgomery to find out what they needed. Can anybody tell me the last time you saw a pay phone?

We used to send out a lot of mail to our field personnel. I think, when I was in the field, most days when I went to the mailbox there was something from the Montgomery office in it. That would be pretty rare nowadays. We send out most of our correspondence as attachments on emails. The beeper and the pay phone have been replaced with cell phones. When I first became the State Veterinarian, I spent a tremendous amount of time on the phone. I am still more than happy to speak to anyone on the phone, but a good bit of that has been replaced with emails and texts. I still refuse to communicate on Facebook and Twitter.

Times have changed. Technological advances demand we get on board to be able to provide the consumer and our export partners with the confidence they require to assure the safety and wholesomeness of the products produced by the agriculture community. And we are making every effort to stay up to date with that technology.

I do, however, believe we are losing something with everything going electronic. I have a friend who lamented to me the other day about our kids and grandkids not going to have those old boxes of pictures every family has tracking their family history of vacations, holidays, graduations, birthday parties, baptisms and all kinds of important stuff caught on Kodak film. I told my friend we just keep all those pictures on jump drives instead of in those bulky boxes. He just stared at me for a few seconds and asked, "And how many jump drives have you lost or misplaced?" Good point. I guess sometimes I would feel better if I just had a piece of paper to hold.



Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.