Meet The Disruptors: Dr Shadi Ireifej Of VetTriage On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Be patient. Our development team is phenomenal, but it takes time to create that kind of technology that we need to make VetTriage one-of-a-kind. Veterinary medical bodies create the standards by which practice, but they are often far removed from what is occurring on the floor day-to-day in any given veterinary clinic or rescue, creating a large disparity between what they believe should be the standards and what the people and animals on the ground actually need/want.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shadi Ireifej.
Dr. Shadi Ireifej is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and Cornell-graduate veterinarian of over 16 years who has practiced in all facets of the veterinary field — rescue organizations, general practices, emergency hospitals, and specialty hospitals — across the United States, before settling in Las Vegas, Nevada. Towards the end of 2019 Dr. Ireifej launched VetTriage, still the only virtual veterinary platform of its kind, with the intention of increasing access to veterinary care, improving the veterinary culture, and spearheading a much needed movement in the under-recognized field of veterinary telehealth. Shadi is a positive and motivating force who is published in multiple medical research papers, gives numerous lectures to various audiences, and is a potent advocate for improving the veterinary culture.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton where I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Biology (2001, Magna cum laude). I then attended Cornell University where I received my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree (2006, DVM).
After completing my studies at Cornell, I participated in an intense one-year small animal medicine and surgery rotating internship at Angel Animal Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts (2007), followed by two rigorous one-year small animal surgical internships at Long Island Veterinary Specialists (LIVS) in Plainview, New York (2009).
I achieved my board certification in small animal surgery by completing a three-year small animal surgery residency at LIVS (2012), and subsequently becoming a Diplomat for the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (DACVS). After operating for almost 10 years at LIVS, I elected for warmer weather, and transplanted to Las Vegas, Nevada in 2016.
In Las Vegas, I became a staff surgeon at Las Vegas Veterinary Specialty Center (LVVSC). In 2017, I began flying across the United States, performing surgeries at a number of emergency and specialty hospitals in need of surgical assistance. This was followed by a Chief of Surgery position at United Veterinary Specialty and Emergency in Silicon Valley, California. Managing three locations, my team and I successfully cared for dogs and cats in the Campbell, Mountain View, and San Jose areas.
In 2018, I joined TrueCare for Pets in the Los Angeles, California area as Chief of Specialty, where I was instrumental in morphing the after-hours and weekend emergency hospital to a successful 24–7 emergency and multi-specialty veterinary hospital. While the size of the hospital tripled, I instituted hospital-wide protocols, managed the surgery, internal medicine, and oncology departments, and became a leading force on social media platforms.
In 2020, I changed gears, finding a novel and state-of-the-art means of reaching concerned pet owners and their ill pets worldwide, VetTriage. I currently serve as the Chief Medical Officer.
What led you to this particular career path?
It became clear to me that clinical practice was unable to completely fulfill me as a veterinarian. It became increasingly obvious to me that we had a systemic problem in the field with regard to culture. It also became obvious to me that the workload spread amongst our veterinary staff members was becoming unsustainable. Virtual care was a clear, and a grotesquely underdeveloped and underutilized solution to a problem that would only be magnified over time as more and more pets became adopted in our communities.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
To say the least, veterinary telehealth is still in its infancy. It made its debut many decades ago but never took off the way it took off on the human side. In order for us to improve access to veterinary care and improve the veterinary culture with the use of virtual care, we have to break through the current barriers on both the ethical and legal side of veterinary medicine.
Despite our human counterparts using telehealth freely, we in the veterinary field are at least two decades behind them. The disruption comes in performing virtual care in a manner that allows us to push the boundaries in an ethical, responsible manner but also in a manner that the current powers would find displeasing and disapprove of within the confines of what is currently considered considered “allowable” virtual care.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake we made was assuming that hiring veterinarians would be vastly more difficult than attracting clients/pet parents to such a platform. We were concerned that the number of pets accessing VetTriage would grow at a rate that would exceed the number of veterinarians we would have on staff, and exceed the rate by which we can hire the necessary number of veterinarians to meet the demand. Boy, were we wrong.
It turns out that veterinarians, similar to other professions, when given the choice, greatly prefer to work from home as opposed to working in the clinic. Without ever advertising, we are constantly sitting on over 200 veterinarian resumes looking to work for our company.
What we learned from this mistake was that the negative culture in the field is apparently far worse than we had anticipated. We also learned that the main focus on increasing access to veterinary care and increasing our exposure to pet parents is via partnerships. Therefore we partner with veterinary universities, small and large veterinary clinics/hospitals, rescue organizations, shelters, and so forth in order to bring awareness to concerned pet parents and overwhelmed veterinary staff members that virtual care is an option.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Dr. Dominic Marino, the Chief of Staff at Long Island Veterinary Specialists, is a respected and renowned veterinarian of 33 years. One of the biggest obstacles to being an industry disruptor are veterinarians who have been in the field for a very long time that cannot see any other way of helping animals in need other than in-person visits.
Despite Dominic being a veteran veterinarian, he gave me the opportunity to explain what it was about virtual care I was doing and what the movement was I was spearheading. As he was my mentor from 2007 to 2015, I have a great deal of respect for his insight and opinion. I was pleasantly surprised that he quickly understood the power and influence of virtual care, and has been a proponent of such a movement ever since our initial discussions. It is one thing to be a disruptor on your own, but it is a whole other animal, so to speak, to be a disruptor backed up by credible individuals like Dr. Marino.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Being a disruptor in an industry becomes negative when those who are disrupting it do so in a sloppy manner with only selfish means and ill intent guiding their motives. A movement will quickly cause irreparable damage and then fizzle out if it is not grounded on a solid foundation. That foundation is what will support the disruption, giving it credence and stability over time. Although it may benefit those in the short term, when done inappropriately and maliciously, the disruption will hurt the credibility of the movement and those disruptors who have positive intent will have a much difficult time creating the much needed change in that particular field. Disrupting needs to be well thought out and planned, building off of the foundational principles that guided that industries historic success and longevity until that point.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Run the principles of your disruption by somebody who is not directly involved in the field. My partner comes from the marketing and financial world. The principles behind the disruption need to make sense to everybody, not just those who are experts and have experience in the field. He has been invaluable in carefully examining and evaluating the core principles of our company from the viewpoint of somebody not directly involved in the field, as an outsider. A fresh pair of eyes will easily let you know if the guiding principles of the disruption will survive the test of time and make sense to anyone made aware of it.
- Have reasonable expectations of those working for your company. Just because I am willing to put everything on the line for what I believe is the right thing to do in order to disrupt this industry sufficiently to make significant progress, that does not mean that those working for my company desire to put everything on the line for the same movement. We have to create an environment where they are part of the movement, proud of the disruption we are creating, but without feeling significant risk for their own professional and personal well-being.
- Be patient. Our development team is phenomenal, but it takes time to create that kind of technology that we need to make VetTriage one-of-a-kind. Veterinary medical bodies create the standards by which practice, but they are often far removed from what is occurring on the floor day-to-day in any given veterinary clinic or rescue, creating a large disparity between what they believe should be the standards and what the people and animals on the ground actually need/want.
- Creating relationships is not enough, you need to care for and foster them continuously. We are currently partnered with over 150 rescue organizations, shelters, veterinary universities, companies, and veterinary practices of all different sizes. It is not enough to simply partner with them and leave it be. You have to follow through with them on a regular basis, to make sure that they are utilizing your services sufficiently and that the outcomes ion their minds are pleasing, in alignment with what their culture and professional goals are. Are we actually creating the real-life change we originally sought out to accomplish?
- Be adaptable. We are currently on our fourth version of the VetTriage platform, which has always been proprietary technology. As the company grows, the industry changes, and we evolve as disruptors, we have to continuously improve our protocols, technology, and services. We will be launching a Spanish-speaking platform to service an underserved community. We will be launching doctor to doctor sessions to support new graduates who want to speak to more experience veterinarians, and for those doctors who want to speak to veterinary specialists. As we confront challenges and hurdles, we need to act quickly and with purpose to not only overcome those challenges but to build upon them in a manner that will make us way better than before.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I will be giving talks at several conferences regarding the movement we are spearheading. We have already exhibited at veterinary conferences and expos and will continue to do so in more remote areas and in sections of the veterinary field that are under-serviced. I make myself accessible to anybody who wants to discuss in detail the company’s guiding principles and the movement we are fighting for.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
There is no one source that has had a deep impact on my thinking. These concepts upon which VetTriage is built upon I have developed over many, many years. It has taken that long to flesh out what the inherent problems are in the veterinary field and what some viable solutions can be implemented in the world of virtual care. Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, Simon Sinek, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Dr. Sam Harris, and Dr’s Bret and Eric Weinstein are just a few influential internet names that come to mind whom have had an influence on my philosophical, business, and ethical concepts that have benefited me during this process.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Work hard with deep, immovable integrity and thoughtful, targeted purpose.”
If you work diligently on a foundation that is solid, meaning a foundation containing honesty, ethics, and good intent, plus build a team around you that can foster these ideals, then it becomes quite difficult to fail. We are not just creating a business, which in itself is very difficult, we are changing the world of veterinary telehealth in a very specific manner. In order to do that we have to break down, or rather build upon, current antiquated norms. In the beginning the odds are stacked against you. But overtime as glimmers of hope shine through, you hold onto those positive moments and that is what fuels your endeavors and supports your underlying principles.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
This is what we are currently doing with VetTriage. The potential reach with virtual care is limitless. The things we can do with our platform can be utilized in many different and specific ways. Our only limitations are our imaginations and passion.
How can our readers follow you online?
YouTube Dr. Shadi Ireifej
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
THANK YOU for having me again.