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Consultation captchas

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WHETHER you're aware of it or not, you will almost certainly have come across a captcha in the past few weeks. This is not the latest in esoteric minipigs, nor is it the next must-have in cross-bred dogs (after labradoodles or cockapoos). In fact, a captcha – an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart – is to be found on many webpages and crops up usually when we're trying to register on a site or attempting to buy something over the internet. (And before you ask, the eponymous Turing test is a method designed to assess a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour.)

Still no wiser? When the website invites you to type in a couple of words that look as if they have been written by someone who has opened a dictionary at random after consuming a bottle of brandy or possibly experimenting enthusiastically with a new recreational drug, what you are seeing is a captcha. Designed to stop websites becoming bogged down by automated postings to blogs or massive volumes of spam e-mails, the words are arbitrarily generated and depicted so that they can be understood by a sentient human being, while baffling the strictly logical processor of a computer.

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Well, that's the idea; crowding characters together, merging letters and numbers, and displaying words as if caught in a swirling maelstrom of confetti are all ways of trying to baffle the automaton's artificial intelligence while allowing the lateral-thinking human brain to understand what it sees. Unfortunately, captchas are not such a great idea. Partly because they're not foolproof against professional spammers (who spend millions of pounds attempting to bypass them, either by using software that can recognise the words or by employing human sweatshops to translate them manually) but mainly because more often than not, and in contradiction to what they are meant to achieve, numerous people can't comprehend the captchas. Visually impaired users or non-English speakers are often at an immediate disadvantage (and if you ever try the audio alternative you'll find they are far from helpful, as they're completely unintelligible).

Speaking as someone who has what I regard as moderate intelligence, reasonable eyesight and a good grasp of my mother tongue, I have to say that frequently I certainly don't understand them. The more I look at a captcha, the more I struggle to interpret what it is that I should be typing into the box. Am I intended to discern a genuine word or is it a meaningless jumble of random characters? Is that a three or an eight? Is it a zero or the letter O? Am I meant to know if the code is case sensitive or not? At best, I'm left with mild eyestrain but if I type the captcha wrongly or hesitate too long, the website obligingly provides me with a new one … even more indecipherable than the last. On more than one occasion I've been totally frustrated and given up in despair.

But what has all this got to do with vets? Simply this. It strikes me that captchas are a metaphor for what we sometimes do during a consultation. The client thinks everything is going smoothly and then we suddenly deliver a diagnosis, explanation and treatment plan that should be intelligible, yet we manage to dress it up – thanks to a combination of scientific jargon, information overload and poor presentation – so that they can't get their head around what we're trying to say. They can make out bits of it, but it really doesn't make sense as a whole, leaving them bemused, frustrated or even annoyed. I do sometimes think that we need to appreciate that our clients are not all medically minded or super-intelligent, and that we should speak in layman's language with a common sense approach, giving them time to understand what we say. After all, they're not robots.

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