Alumni News | General News

Dynamic Veterinary Duo Hopes App Will Make Animals’, Veterinarians’ Lives Better

Dr. Aaron Smiley and Dr. Jason Szumski are shown on a zoom call

One is the chief of staff at a small animal clinic in Indiana, a chief of staff advisor for 20 other clinics through a national veterinary services company, a telemedicine expert, and a public speaker. The other has completed not-quite-one year of practice as a small animal clinician in suburban Chicago.

They share a self-described identity as a “fixer” and a veterinary degree from the University of Illinois. And they both credit their time at that institution with strengthening their resilience, fostering a respect for alternative points of view, and connecting them with a remarkable network of colleagues.

Together, they have launched VetSOAP, software that uses artificial intelligence to create accurate patient records from audio recordings. The product aims to save veterinarians time and improve animal care.

Meet the Makers

While in veterinary school, Dr. Jason Szumski spent all four years as class representative for the Class of 2023, served as Illinois chapter president of the Veterinary Business Management Association, coordinated the student ambassador program, and spearheaded the creation of two professional recruitment videos.

Dr. Szumski gives a lecture to fourth-year students at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Aaron Smiley’s exhaustive CV includes leading the Indiana Veterinary Medical Association as president and giving back to the Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine by serving on its alumni board, lecturing on telemedicine to its students, and introducing hackathons that united Illinois students and community members in solving real-world veterinary problems.

“I graduated in ’07, so I have less hair [than Jason],” he noted.

The two were brought together by Dr. Lawrence Firkins, a former professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, who mentored both as students.

“I have always been a fixer, and once Dr. Firkins and I met, he was like ‘I know another fixer, and you need to be in the same room with him,’” Dr. Szumski recalled.

“I think I came out of the womb curious,” Dr. Smiley commented. “Both of us are people who go, ‘Hey, there’s a problem. Let’s figure out how to fix it,’ and not just sit in the problem.”

The pairing quickly turned out to be a success, with the veterinarians sharing a passion for improving animal care. However, it took a couple of years after meeting before they hit on their current collaboration.

Finding Motivation at Illinois

During their veterinary college years, both men honed their determination to succeed in the face of difficulty.

Dr. Aaron Smiley gives a lecture, as he has incorporated public speaking into his veterinary career.

“Time at Illinois taught me how to work through hard, difficult things,” Dr. Smiley said. “Now when I’m faced with challenges from a professional standpoint, there aren’t too many things that I don’t think, ‘Well, we can figure this out.’”

Dr. Szumski encountered a global challenge as a student.

“We went through a pandemic while I was in vet school, so we really quickly had to learn how to adapt … and support people during times of crisis,” Dr. Szumski said. “If you can get through this, you can get through anything.”

This problem-solving attitude has helped the veterinarians tackle the learning curve of AI and implement new technology in the veterinary field.

Working Together

The partnership between a recent graduate and a seasoned practitioner may seem unlikely, but they are energized by each other’s personalities. Their interactions bubble with excitement and playfulness, grounded in mutual respect.

“The college taught me that once the veterinarian has graduated, that doctor is a colleague,” Dr. Smiley stated. “When you have a degree from the University of Illinois, we hold that in high esteem. The education is there, so away we go!”

While the pair face disagreements from time to time, “Assuming good intent is a really good dynamic that we have,” Dr. Szumski said. “And for me, it started at Illinois.”

“For the most part, people are trying to figure it out… That assumption of good intent really started [at] this college,” Dr. Smiley explained. “I would have dramatically different [from others] —and very passionate—viewpoints. Back to Dr. Firkins: he would be like ‘Hold on, just grab it from their perspective for a second.’ And that really helped.”

The difference in their experience levels enriches the partnership. Being a recent graduate, Dr. Szumski brings intimate knowledge of a new practitioner’s struggles within the field. Dr. Smiley’s expertise pinpoints how a product can improve the clinical experience.

The senior partner tends to be the idea generator, while the relative newcomer is the pragmatist.

“Dr. Smiley is ‘Hey, here’s an idea.’ And I’m more of a ‘That’s a great idea. How are we going to do it?’” Dr. Szumski said.

The Making of VetSOAP

“I love Doctor Smiley to death. Sometimes his ideas are radical, and I’m like, ‘I don’t see the need for that.’ But when he came to me [about VetSOAP], I was like. ‘That’s going to solve a lot of issues.’ It was a no-brainer.”

Ironically, given the high-tech nature of artificial intelligence, Dr. Smiley got the idea for VetSOAP while reading a newspaper article touting the potential of AI.

“Even as we talk about artificial intelligence and hyper technology advances, for me, the physical newspaper is a real catalyst for creative thought,” Dr. Smiley stated.

A few months after reading about AI, Dr. Smiley reached out to Dr. Szumski about the VetSOAP idea, but Dr. Szumski was still a veterinary student. He felt he needed experience as a practicing veterinarian to learn more about what the field was missing first. In late 2023, the alumni reconnected to get started on VetSOAP.

Delivering Confidence …

Dr. Szumski’s experiences as a new veterinarian led to the AI software having the ability to provide guidance on ideas by searching a carefully curated dataset for relevant articles.

Dr. Jason Szumski and Dr. Aaron Smiley in a Zoom meeting showcasing the patient note feature of VetSOAP.

“The transition from vet student to veterinarian is hard, and there’s a lot of learning hurdles,” Dr. Szumski said. He identified his own learning gaps and reported, “Here’s what holes we need to fill, and right now there are thousands of new grad veterinarians who are struggling with the same thing.”

The biggest gap “by far,” he noted, is confidence.

Dr. Szumski has an “amazing mentor” at the clinic where he practices. “She knows that if I ask her 150 questions a day, the next day I’m still going to ask her another 150 questions, and she’s cool with that,” Dr. Szumski said. “A lot of people don’t have that [support. They] have that feeling that they’re bothering someone.”

He realized the potential for the software to provide mentorship for new graduates. With VetSOAP, AI offers some diagnostic options, which may validate what the clinician was already thinking. “Boom, there’s a little bit of support, just like that,” noted Dr. Szumski.

… and Speed

The time-saving aspect of the software also supports new graduates.

“In school, I saw one or two cases a day, so I was able to do these [long patient notes]. Now I’m seeing 12 or 13 or 14 cases a day, [and] I don’t have six times the time,” Dr. Szumski said. “I have to figure out how I can deliver the same quality in less time. AI just makes life so much easier.”

For new graduates and seasoned veterinarians, artificial intelligence can save time at practices and maintain the quality of patient notes.

“Our technology basically summarizes the information that you’re talking about with the pet owner and prints it out for you,” Dr. Szumski said.

Changing the World, Inspiring Others

When asked what the next steps were for VetSOAP, Dr. Smiley answered simply, “Change the world.”

Then he conceded that before they can change the world, they have to create awareness of their product. They hope that as more veterinarians use VetSOAP, practices will begin to see positive changes.

“Dr. Szumski and I want to be at the forefront of changing veterinary medicine so that more animals get better care,” Dr. Smiley said. “It sounds hyperbolic, and it’s not.”

The app is currently out in beta form, according to Dr. Szumski. They believe that because they created this software for other veterinarians and have priced it competitively, they can “fundamentally make veterinarians’ lives better.”

Additionally, Dr. Smiley hopes VetSOAP will inspire more veterinarians to bring innovation into the field.

“There’s nothing unique about Jason and me,” Dr. Smiley said. “I would say the uniqueness is the willingness to fail a lot. That’s unique because it’s scary and not fun. But if there’s any type of altruistic endeavor on our part, it’s to inspire other veterinarians to make veterinary medicine better.”

By Haley Maser