Many people know IBM Watson® as the IBM-developed supercomputer that made headlines in 2011 by defeating two skilled competitors on the quiz show Jeopardy!

Fewer people know IBM Watson as the high-tech self-learning Q&A system used by over 380 hospitals and health organizations, and which powers the heart of LifeLearn Sofie, the advanced veterinary medical search tool that gives veterinarians lightning-fast answers to veterinary medical questions asked in natural, everyday language.

In other words, to use Sofie, you just ask Sofie.

As the first cognitive computing (AI) veterinary medical knowledge application, Sofie evolved as a solution to an enduring challenge in the veterinary profession.

Veterinarians have long struggled with wearing many hats. From being a general practitioner to caring for many different animal species, veterinarians must also be experts on multiple body systems, act as pharmacists, and be businesspeople. And this makes it particularly difficult for veterinarians to keep up to date with the volumes of information that already exist within veterinary medicine as well as the ever-expanding body of scientific literature in their field.

With medical information now doubling every three months, the amount of knowledge that veterinarians must keep at hand is staggering.

Sofie was created by veterinarians for the sole purpose of empowering veterinarians and their teams with faster, easier access to the most current, trusted, and credible veterinary medical information to manage cases quickly, allowing them to ultimately provide better care to their patients. Born of LifeLearn’s deep knowledge of both the science and business of the animal health industry, Sofie provides single or multiple veterinarian access to accommodate any size team. Sofie saves time, optimizes practice workflow, and reflects LifeLearn’s foundational commitment to provide customizable online solutions that advance animal health and education worldwide.

Named after the Greek word for wisdom, Sofie germinated shortly after IBM transferred IBM Watson’s memory capacity to a cloud-based system in 2013 (allowing IBM Watson an almost unlimited accumulation of information to search and analyze) and established an IBM Watson cloud service the following year at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center facilities in Yorktown, NY.  The research center was established to focus on collaboration with start-ups for R&D and commercialization of IBM Watson cloud-based apps. Seeing an opportunity to leverage IBM Watson’s leading-edge, augmented intelligence capability to rapidly search and deliver veterinary medical information (from differentials and drug information to diagnostic and treatment advice) and pave IBM Watson’s way into animal health care, Mark Stephenson, DVM (LifeLearn President from 2001 to 2013), took on the role of Lifelearn’s Chief Corporate Development Officer in 2014 to establish a partnership with IBM Watson, and in April of 2014, LifeLearn began developing the proprietary software interface Sofie to sit on top of IBM Watson technology.

Part of the Sofie development process involved a needs assessment to determine the user interface and user experience requirements. Another part involved back end software development to connect to IBM Watson through a series of application program interfaces (APIs). To enable IBM Watson to ingest veterinary medical content and understand the language of veterinary medicine through “data training,” IBM provided a dashboard—the Watson Experience Manager—to a team of veterinarians and veterinary students led by Dr. Stephenson.

The team began training Sofie through a series of Q&A sessions in which a question and a paragraph of text containing the answer were submitted into the system. The process was repeated thousands of times to train Sofie on questions and answers that a veterinarian would typically ask in practice, all to refine the system to deliver the most relevant answers to veterinary medical questions. In the process, the algorithms built into IBM Watson were built to take over through self-learning, to understand the linkages, context, and connections in veterinary medicine and become smarter on their own, all while the LifeLearn team slowly added trusted veterinary medical content to Sofie, starting with LifeLearn’s own publications (Mathew’s Emergency and Critical Care Manual) to all small animal medical and surgical through licensing agreements established with the major medical publishers Elsevier and Wiley.

In 2014, Sofie was released for beta testing with a handful of clients, including established practices in Alberta and Ontario, and one year later, Sofie won two Everyday Health Awards (the Health Innovation Award and Audience Choice Award) at the popular International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

In 2018, Sofie entered clinical trials involving more than 50 practicing veterinarians from across North America, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Within a short period of time, veterinarians described the responses they received from Sofie as “reliable and knowledgeable,” and were most impressed by Sofie’s ability to instantly respond to their questions with relevant and specific answers from only the most widely used and highly respected professional resources.

  • 75% of trial participants reported that Sofie saved them time—especially when compared to other traditional information sources.
  • 91% of participants reported that Sofie helped them solve a problem.

“We knew Sofie would save the veterinarians valuable time searching for medical information, but we hadn’t fully anticipated how it would impact all stages of care,” said Dr. Stephenson. “Sofie can help the veterinary team research cases right from the first contact, even before the patient is brought in. Then, additional diagnostic help can be sought quickly in the examination room from a smartphone, tablet of desktop computer. Finally, Sofie’s easy-to-use interface provides treatment (including drug dosages), prognosis, and follow-up options, again all from reliable, credible sources.” Stephenson added, “Having this all in one place is an incredible benefit and creates enormous efficiency, allowing the veterinarian to focus more fully on patient care and communicating with the pet owner.”

Sofie launched in February of 2018 (and would win Gold at the 2019 Vetty Awards for the launch).

Shortly after, LifeLearn partnered with the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC), a non-profit organization that has been providing world-class content to the global veterinary health care community since 1982 and signed a multi-year agreement to expand Sofie’s knowledge library.

“We’re already in receipt of the last four years of the NAVC/VMX Small Animal Conference proceedings,” said Randy Valpy, LifeLearn President and CEO, “and will add each new year’s content going forward. Sofie also features all issues (8 years) of Today’s Veterinary Practice, one of the NAVC’s most popular and best-regarded journals.”

In addition to these proceedings and journals, Sofie provides veterinarians with access to over 40,000 pages of reference-based information, and content from 25 (and growing) trusted veterinary textbooks, and 150 procedural videos.

Today, LifeLearn continues to grow and evolve Sofie to serve more veterinarians.

In January of 2019, LifeLearn unveiled its online store and featured Sofie as its flagship product. The new online shopping page provides practices with the ability to purchase all Sofie product options based on the size of a practice and makes it easier and faster to transact with LifeLearn and manage user authorization for subscriptions to Sofie. And with Sofie’s new User Management features, practices can now:

Sofie’s new User Management features also attest to why Sofie continues to be an award-winning veterinary medical search tool. And with Sofie’s ongoing updates, veterinarians can know that they always have the latest in-demand veterinary information right at their fingertips at lightning speed to support the best possible diagnosis and treatment for patients.

Have you met Sofie yet?

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