Veterinarians bear brunt of software shortfalls, vendor growing pains

VIA asks for patience as company updates practice management software

April 12, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Dr. Tripp Stewart spent upwards of $20,000 on the latest technology designed to take his start-up emergency practice paperless — a migration that he says has been flanked by disappointment and aggravation, the product of promises not kept by a beleaguered software maker.

After four months of weekly phone calls to support services, Stewart posted strong words in a Veterinary Information Network (VIN) discussion. His warning to colleagues: “Stay away from VIA.”

“I have been reluctant to bash the software because we need them to help us with customer support, but lately that has been dreadful as well so I feel free to vent,” he writes on VIN. “This software is the antithesis to user friendly. ... I need to let other ERs know not to fall for the sales pitches.”

Based near Dallas, VIA Information Systems is new on the veterinary scene compared with many of its competitors. It specializes in creating programs with potential to take a practice paperless, which is a departure from the traditional cash register-centric systems that dominate the veterinary software marketplace. VIA software offers unique features like a digital whiteboard that centralizes the charts of admitted patients to be viewed at a glance — a selling point that attracted Stewart. While company officials acknowledge that the current software has some functionality issues, a soon-to-be-released updated version is expected to work out the kinks and deliver as promised.

“We’ve been working for several months on a release with new enhancements and functionality,” explains Steve Strittmatter, VIA vice president, in an interview with the VIN News Service. “It’s a typical case where we expected to get this software out during the first quarter of this year; however, we’ve been testing since October, and we’re now just getting ready to ship to clients.”

Whether those expectations will be met remains in question, and for now, the potential of what’s to come appears to have done little to ease user frustrations. Strittmatter believes that the majority of VIA's users are content with the current program.

"We have lots of satisfied users, and we're working hard to enhance the software to meet the needs of those who are dissatisfied," he says. 

Dr. Sean Sawyer, a practitioner in Massachusetts, falls into the category of content VIA user. In response to Stewart's VIN post, he writes: "We have been using it for almost two years and have generally been happy with it other than a few quirks, many of which I found in other programs, too."

Feline practitioner Dr. Anne Sinclair, of Maryland, concurs: "I have VIA in my clinic and know that we do not use it to its potential."

That seems to be a sticking point, says Stewart, owner of Greenbrier Emergency Animal Hospital in Charlottesville, Va. He suspects that his practice has challenged the VIA system, considering he uses the program to generate paperless reports, track inventory, manage the practice's time clock and control its drug logs. He has a 48-inch television bolted to the wall that runs the VIA's digital whiteboard continuously.

"I'm so dependent on VIA," Stewart says, acknowledging that despite his disappointment with the software, VIA has been responsive to his concerns, even floating him additional support that typically costs extra.

Yet the company's efforts have failed to end Stewart's troubles, leaving the practitioner feeling trapped by a program that cost thousands of dollars to implement and now would present a hassle to eliminate.

That kind of aggravation is not novel, nor can such dissatisfaction be pinned only on VIA. Based on comments from veterinarians, it appears that virtually all practice management software companies have been heavily criticized, either for their programs or questionable sales pitches. For most software makers, advertising takes place in the exhibit halls of veterinary conferences. One of the profession's largest — Western Veterinary Conference — featured 21 software companies this year.

Today, VIA will wrap up its booth at Central Veterinary Conference in Baltimore, where more than 1,000 veterinarians likely walked the exhibit hall floor during the annual four-day gathering. It was during a meeting like this that Stewart claims he was reeled in by VIA, a company that “pulled its sales force off a used car lot.” Yet a search on VIN reveals that VIA does not stand alone when it comes to criticism. Dozens of message board discussions feature grumblings about other practice management systems including some of the biggest names in the veterinary market: IntraVet, ImproMed, AVImark, Cornerstone and DVMax.

“I’ve raised a pretty good stink because the VIA sales department was not in sync with the rest of the company,” Stewart says. “For example, they promised that I didn’t need to hire any tech person to put it all together, that it was a ‘point-and-shoot‘ system. Three thousand dollars in technical support later, and I am still having problems. I paid for a VIA training person to stay the day. It’s extremely complicated software that needs a bunch of drivers running, and if you have a hardware problem — even though VIA sold it to me — they can’t answer those questions. That is just the beginning.”

Veterinarians, as a group, are not known for their technological savvy, and Stewart admits that at his previous practices, he never used software to capacity: “We ran our clinics like everybody else does. I might have had all the same problems with DVMax, but I wouldn’t know. I never used its powers. It became just a billing tool for me.

“It wasn’t until VIA that I put both feet into the water. Maybe I’m asking too much of any software,” he muses.

What makes VIA’s situation unique lies with what’s happening with the company internally. Five years ago, Elkin Medical Systems, a leader in digital radiology and ultrasound equipment for veterinarians, purchased the boutique software maker. Then last July, VCA-Antech, Inc., merged with Elkin to become part of a corporate behemoth — one that operates and manages the largest network of freestanding veterinary hospitals and DVM-exclusive clinical laboratories in the country.

Stewart believes that as a VIA user, he’s been left behind as the software manufacturer struggles to find its place in the corporate takeover. His post drew others on VIN, some who shared stories of displeasure with VIA and those who talked of past software companies that left them “high and dry” by going out of business. Characterizing his own plight, one VIN member writes: “I spent an excessive amount of time researching what was available for veterinarians to the point I almost went insane.” Another VIN member expressed fears that since VCA-Antech, Inc., recently swallowed VIA as part of a merger, the deal could spell death for VIA programs.

“I have heard Antech has their own management software so they may soon drop support for VIA,” he writes. “I hope it turns out to be a false rumor.”

VIA executive Strittmatter admits that getting the updated software release out has been difficult, yet he promises that the company isn’t closing shop as backing by VCA-Antech has been positive.

In fact, VIA appears to be a major reason for VCA's purchase of Elkin. In a VIN News Service article about the buyout, VCA Chief Financial Officer Tomas Fuller indicated that VIA software would replace the $1.3-billion company's own practice management software, known as WoofWare.

As a result, VIA is experiencing what can be characterized as “growing pains,” Strittmatter says. Bob Antin, CEO of VCA-Antech, did not respond to phone calls from the VIN News Service seeking further clarification.

“I know that there are concerns that we’re going away, but that’s certainly not the case,” Strittmatter says. “We’ve just had our best quarter, with large installations, new sales and the new release. We’re certainly not perfect by any means, and the growth has been hard to keep up with. We’re working it out the best that we can.”

Stewart surmises that to create a greater picture of fiscal health as VCA-Antech shopped Elkin for the buyout, VIA sales staff made promises to prospective buyers that they could not keep.

Strittmatter refuted the idea that VIA supports such sales tactics and cringes at the suggestion. Yet Stewart builds on the speculation:

“They really pushed big at the conferences. They knew that they were going to be bought and had to make their numbers look good. I just don’t think they were ready to take on a practice like ours," Stewart contends. 

Examples of Stewart’s problems with VIA software include programming that bars staff from creating canned estimates without hours of tedious data entry or drawing up easy-to-read discharge reports.

“As an emergency and referral clinic, we’ll get these cases on Friday that stay until Monday morning,” Stewart explains. “You might have five or six vets shifting through, each one needing to write a plan, evaluation, etc., but they can't just amend what is already in the system. The company doesn’t know how to handle this situation and has advised that each veterinarian write a new record and plan. That means that the animal would be discharged with 50 pages, and the local vet would have a book on this animal.

“Another option would be that the last vet would have to write a summary of the entire weekend,” he adds. “That is ridiculous. None of my vets would take a Sunday night shift because all they would do is write summaries.”

One bright spot with VIA has been its technical support staff, which Stewart praises for remaining helpful and friendly despite being on the receiving end of his frustrations. Most recently, a dilemma centered on Stewart's discovery that the program’s whiteboard time clock was recording information an hour ahead of the program’s medical records system.

It took just 24 hours for the company's service personnel to fix.

“I’m hoping that every VCA (hospital) employs VIA and that tightens the software," Stewart says. "If someone put the time and effort into VIA, it could be the best, hands down. It’s got the bones. The skeleton of VIA is brilliant. It just takes so much effort to dress it up or you can't use it.”

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