My first AAEP Convention was in 2006. I flew to San Antonio alone, went to my sessions alone, spoke to exactly two colleagues whom I happened to run across at an alumni reception, went to more sessions alone, flew home alone, and then tried to pour out all of my excitement about the conference to my long-suffering, nonhorsey husband. Failing there, I did take the information back to the clinic where my colleagues, staff, technicians, and clients were properly interested. But, my convention experience remained largely locked behind my own skull.

My husband caught me checking my Twitter feed on my phone last night as we were walking through Disneyland. “I was just keeping up with my social media responsibilities,” I said, walking a little faster and shoving my phone into my purse. After he finished laughing at me, I explained that I had been replying to a tweet from a colleague with whom I’d been keeping up a sort of 21st century pen-pal friendship during the convention.

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Social media can transform a solo practitioner to a member of a virtual "group practice." We all have unique experiences, and when colleagues are able to share those experiences, our patients and clients benefit.
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This interaction took my brain back to the beginning of the convention, to the theme of communication. I began thinking about the ways that communication has shifted since my first AAEP experience six years ago. I think that the biggest shift has been in the ways that we use social media to connect, to critique, and to disseminate information.

I have colleagues who are far more adept than I in the use of social media as a veterinary medical tool. In fact, not only was the keynote speaker for the convention a communications expert, but, for what I believe may be the first time, a table topic session was devoted to social media use.

With the exception of those in large group practices or academia, most equine veterinarians spend their professional lives the way I spent my first AAEP convention, isolated from colleagues by geography and time. Spending all day in your truck doesn’t provide much opportunity to bounce ideas off of other practitioners. Social media is invaluable here; it can transform a solo practitioner to a member of a virtual "group practice." We all have unique experiences, and when colleagues are able to share those experiences, our patients and clients benefit.

It is impossible to be in two-places at once, and throughout this conference I have relied on my Twitter feed for information about the other sessions, since a number of us have been live-Tweeting throughout. By the way, if you would like a peek at snippets of the convention, and the insights of other practitioners, check out the convention hashtag on Twitter. #AAEP2012.

The double-edged sword of the internet affects veterinarians as much as it does everyone else. We can connect with colleagues faster than ever thanks to email listservs, interactive chat forums, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. I have several colleagues with whom I struck up Twitter and Facebook relationships at last year’s convention. Our interactions have carried through this year, and it begins to feel as though I know what things interest them, what drives them, even non-veterinary factors that influence their lives, such as family. But, I’ve never met them in person.

That’s one of the well-known edges to the social media sword. As compelling and valuable as these connections can be, they are, in a way, unreal.

One of the other potential pitfalls is equally well-known--information dissemination. One of the great things about modern communications is the speed with which news travels. One of the terrible things about modern communications is the speed with which news travels.

In the Welfare and Public Policy forum on Saturday afternoon, Dr. Nat White presented an outline of the proposed National Equine Health Plan. A huge part of the plan developed by this task force is the development of a system of communications during disease outbreaks.

I’m sure that you’ve heard more in the last couple of years about diseases such as EHV-1 than you ever did in the past. Disease outbreaks have always been a part of the horse world, just as they are part of the entire animal kingdom. However, never before have so many known so much about an outbreak in a barn so quickly. But, with great speed comes great unreliability. It becomes challenging to sort the informational wheat from the chaff. Even veterinarians may not know in the early stages of an outbreak which of the soundbites flying at us are accurate and which are exaggerated or bogus.

I don’t have a ton of answers when it comes to navigating the social media forest. Like any forest, it is a place of enlightenment and beauty, and a place of shadows and hazards. But, the possibility of a bear behind a tree doesn’t deter us from enjoying a hike, and the possibility of getting lost in the social media forest shouldn’t deter us from reaching out--colleagues and horse owners alike. Just be careful out there, and take a compass.