has undergone its biggest overhaul since the online community was first launched over a decade ago, specifically to offer a far better platform for clinical discussion than Facebook, and to give referral practitioners a major new incentive to help their general practitioner colleagues online.

Earlier in the year, we conducted a survey of veterinary surgeons to ask what you felt were the biggest problems with using Facebook as a way to share or discuss clinical information.

According to the survey, veterinary surgeons felt the greatest problem with Facebook is that you cannot see the professional qualifications of those contributing to a discussion, so unless you know them offline, you have no context for what they post. Even in closed groups, it can be hard, if not impossible to know whether you are talking to someone with many years' experience, or virtually none; an RCVS Specialist, or a general practitioner, or a veterinary nurse.

The father of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee recognised transparency as one of the most significant problems with the Internet during the Dimbleby Lecture at the end of last year. He said:

“Another problem people are perhaps increasingly aware of, particularly more recently, has to do with the fact that much of the web has insufficient accountability. There is by design, no approval system people need to go to, to share their information online. They don’t have to come and ask me to post something. So as soon as someone posts something on the web it can be viewed by a huge number of people. This seemed to work when people posted as individuals with their own reputations at stake. But now we have systems which create fake accounts and there are millions of automated systems, bots we call them, for robots, on social media platforms spreading messages of hate and conflict

"Because of this, misinformation has been spreading rapidly. There are not enough systems holding these people and this information to account. They should be testing the truthfulness of the information organisations and individuals are putting online.”

Whilst it is perhaps unlikely that malign foreign governments have been infiltrating veterinary Facebook groups to spread discord or indeed that there are many individuals deliberately spreading misinformation in this small profession, Sir Tim's point is still highly relevant to the sharing of clinical information, advice, experience or opinion.

The problem is that Facebook gives equivalence to everyone's opinion, an equivalence they simply do not deserve. 

Sir Tim is right, you should indeed be questioning the truthfulness, or rather the accuracy of clinical information and opinions posted by colleagues online, and the starting point for that is knowing who posted it, and what qualifications they hold. 

Improved provenance for posts offers a higher standard of clinical discussion

The new discussion forums make an important step forward with that, by displaying the year and place of qualification next to posts, together with veterinary postnominals, taken from members' full VetSurgeon Profiles. We're also going to make it compulsory for contributing referral practitioners to complete their profile before posting.

Better curation of information

The other biggest problems identified in the survey are how quality information gets drowned in a sea of 'me too' replies on Facebook, how it is difficult to refer back to old posts with useful information and how information is badly curated, making it hard to find what interests you.

On content is now curated both by type, for example forum or news posts, and by areas of clinical interest, which each have their own group you can join and subscribe to. That makes it easier for referral practitioners or postgrad students to follow just their specific area of interest, or for anyone just trying to find information quickly.

We also asked what we could do to encourage you to visit more often for clinical discussions. 62% of you said: 'improve the ease of use on smartphones' and 50.9% said: 'create a way for you to put a question to a group of expert clinicians'.

So that is what we've done (or are doing). 

Enhanced for mobile phone use

The new VetSurgeon discussion forums have been significantly enhanced for mobile phones. The new main navigation makes it far easier to find your way around the site. You can now reply to forum posts on the same page as the original post, which may sound like a small thing, but it makes a big difference. Elsewhere, we've optimised our use of the more limited space available.

Coming soon, new Expert Help Forums

Very soon, we'll be unveiling another feature designed to improve the quality of online clinical discussions, and to stop them drowning in a sea of me too replies. In our new Expert Help Forums, all members will be able to ask a clinical question, but only referral practitioners and selected expert general practitioner members will be able to reply (so long as they display their credentials, of course). When they do, they'll get proper recognition for their help, something which is again missing from Facebook.

With all this talk of better standards of clinical discussions on, it is also worth reminding everyone that time spent in the forums counts towards your annual CPD requirement too. Just click the 'Claim CPD' button in the title.

Finally, as with any building project of this magnitude, there are inevitably some snags. Things that don't work or display as expected, especially on older or more obscure devices. If you come across something like that, please do email details (your browser, version and device type) to [email protected] and we'll endeavour to get it fixed, pronto. 

Photo: Arlo Guthrie, Editor

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