Picture of Émilie LacharitéÉmilie Lacharité is Digital Content Editor at CMAJ

Humans are mammals. Yup. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the obvious in order to give our head a shake. Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist with the UCLA Medical Centre and “zoobiquitous physician”, did some reminding in her TEDMED presentation.

 Of course there are obvious differences between humans and other species, but overall we have a lot of similar or identical organs, diseases, afflictions and behaviours. So why do veterinarians and physicians keep working in parallel? With her “zoobiquity” Natterson-Horowitz is trying to change that.

Physicians and vets, she says, are caring for the same disorders. There’s congestive heart failure, cancer, ALS, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, post-partum depression, stroke, and the list goes on. Many procedures are also the same (evaluating heart murmurs, draining fluid from pericardium, etc.). Natterson-Horowitz’s journey started when she was asked by veterinarians at the Los Angeles Zoo to consult on the case of a chimpanzee with a facial droop. They suspected a possible cardiac cause and wanted Natterson-Horowitz to lend her cardiac imaging expertise. Eventually, she joined the medical advisory board for the zoo and she began to notice a huge missed opportunity for not only collaborating between vets and physicians but also for sharing literature and research findings and consulting  each other for medical cases.

Picture of Barbara Natterson-Horowitz performing a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) on an animal patient

Barbara specializes in transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE), a procedure that allows a doctor to get a close-up view of the heart. Here, she helps image an animal patient, using the same techniques she would use with a human. (Photo from zoobiquity.com)

Physicians, she says, are commonly dismissive and condescending toward non-MD doctors, including veterinarians. And yet there’s the old joke: What do you call a vet who can only take care of one species? A physician. It is harder to get into vet school than medical school. Unfortunately, Natterson-Horowitz says, the gulf remains large between the two fields.

Natterson-Horowitz now chairs the Zoobiquity Conference, where everyone “checks their attitudes and pre-conceptions at the door and comes together as colleagues and collaborators”. The conference provides a unique opportunity for knowledge and technique sharing between two fields that have historically remained very separate.

CMAJ is a TEDMED affiliate and our editors will be blogging about TEDMED 2014 this week.