Dr. Boatright is a 2013 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. She currently works as a small animal general practitioner and emergency clinician in western Pennsylvania at NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center. Her clinical interests include feline medicine, surgery, internal medicine, and emergency. As a freelance writer and speaker, Dr. Boatright enjoys educating veterinary students and colleagues about communication, team building, and the unique challenges facing recent graduates. Outside of the clinic, she is active in her state and local VMAs and serves on the VBMA Alumni Committee. In her spare time, she enjoys running and spending time with her husband, son, and three cats.Read Articles Written by Kate Boatright
In early March 2020, I traveled across my home state of Pennsylvania to present 6 hours of workshops at one of our state VMA’s conferences. I felt like I was on the edge of breaking into the speaking world that I had been working toward for the past 2 years. I was excited for the lineup of conferences and veterinary school lectures that were scheduled in the coming months. Within a week, our state had gone into lockdown along with the rest of the country as the COVID-19 pandemic reared its head.
As lectures and conferences were canceled and the pandemic lockdown and social distancing recommendations stretched on, veterinary professionals were faced with the question of how they would earn the required continuing education (CE) credits to maintain their licensure. Many states granted extensions on renewals or provided waivers lifting the requirement for in-person CE. Veterinary CE providers responded to these changes, mobilizing their teams to move entire conferences to a digital world. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, the question of how we will receive our CE in the future remains.
Welcome to the Virtual World
While many veterinarians and CE providers were exploring virtual learning for the first time during the pandemic, it is not a new concept. Garret Pachtinger, VMD, DACVECC, VETgirl co-founder and director of operations, states that, “In 2013, when VETgirl started, we knew this was the future of veterinary medicine. Growth has been exponential over the past few years. With that being said, COVID-19 and the worldwide lockdown dramatically sped up this process.”
Digital education allows veterinary professionals to receive CE on their terms and timeline. Dr. Pachtinger says that veterinary professionals face the challenge of “time poverty,” the result of juggling a packed schedule that often makes it difficult to catch up on a stack of veterinary journals or leave the office for a week to attend a conference in person. The asynchronous nature of digital learning allows veterinary professionals to view webinars and conferences live or on demand.
Virtual conferences also allow attendees to learn from the safety and comfort of their own homes. Without the time and expense required by travel, conferences are available to broader audiences, including students and the global veterinary community. “Through virtual conferences, we have had the honor in connecting to our international colleagues and to individuals who may not have had the means or methods to attend a live conference,” says Adam Christman, DVM, MBA, chief veterinary officer of Fetch dvm360. “We were fortunate enough to build strong relationships with these international attendees, learn from each other, and foster a learning environment that all veterinary professionals can benefit from.”
Virtual conferences also overcome some common challenges of in-person conferences. For instance, audience size in any given lecture is no longer limited by the physical size of a room. And for those of us who have trouble choosing between concurrent sessions, on-demand viewing allows us to “attend” every session of interest. “The ability to view [sessions] later also encourages people to try new tracks and sessions to enhance their skill sets,” says Erin Weber, VEMM, the NAVC’s senior vice president of VirtualXP. Attendees no longer have to choose between the communication lecture, practice management session, and scientific session that might help strengthen an area of medicine they are weaker in—they can view them all.
Challenges of Virtual Learning
It is undeniable that virtual CE has brought immense flexibility to veterinary learning, but it cannot replace all aspects of live events. Weber notes that “walking hotel venues and exhibit halls on-site leads to discoveries and interactions that are challenging to replicate in a virtual world.” The challenges of digital education affect attendees, speakers, and conference organizers in different ways. For attendees, learning new technology and navigating numerous virtual learning platforms can be frustrating, and the entire conference experience is changed in a virtual environment. The hands-on learning provided through wet labs is missing. The excited buzz of networking throughout the exhibit hall, the happy reunions of classmates, and the applause echoing at the end of an engaging lecture cannot be duplicated. Watching consecutive hours of lectures on a computer screen is tiring, especially without the ability to take a walk through the exhibit hall or grab lunch with a colleague between sessions. By the final day of a multiday conference, even the most dedicated learners may feel their enthusiasm for education waning.
Conference organizers and speakers are tasked with overcoming these challenges and delivering high-quality CE to their audiences in an engaging way. Digital education offerings vary from single webinars to multihour CE symposiums and multiday conferences. For conference organizers, converting an entire conference to a digital format poses unique challenges. Conference organizers are often collecting hours of prerecorded sessions, navigating technical difficulties for both attendees and speakers, and coordinating their programming across multiple time zones. Finding meaningful ways for attendees to engage with exhibitors, sponsors, speakers, and other attendees to deliver a well-rounded conference experience is a particular challenge. “In the past there was little opportunity for interactive learning and use of technology,” notes Dr. Pachtinger. “As the needs and diversity of veterinary professionals have evolved, so too has the need to advance learning with online education.” Companies that are invested in digital education must continue to embrace new technologies.
For speakers, the transition to a virtual world has also included speed bumps. As a speaker who relies on audience participation during my sessions, I have had to alter my presentation style to best deliver material in a virtual environment. While some sessions are presented live, prerecorded sessions can minimize technical difficulties but further distance the lecturer from the audience. Speaking to a computer screen where attendees aren’t visible also challenges the speaker. Without feedback in the moment, it is difficult to know if the audience is engaged, confused, or even bored. Online polling software can help to engage with the audience during a live session. As virtual learning continues to develop, speakers will have to continue to find new ways to engage their audiences.
What Does the Future Hold?
The landscape of veterinary CE, much like the profession as a whole, has been forever changed by the pandemic. The advantages brought to us by virtual learning will not be forgotten. “We believe in-person CE will remain, as people still desire travel, face-to-face connections, and networking, but ultimately the world has seen the benefit of online education, and the new normal will be that hybrid approach between online and in-person CE,” says Dr. Pachtinger.
In June, the NAVC held the first large-scale hybrid veterinary conference at VMX 2021, offering attendees the option to attend virtually or in person. In-person attendees had the opportunity to access on-demand sessions following the conference as well. This format is returning for VMX 2022 in January. “We want attendees in both delivery methods to seek the solutions that fit their needs in real time,” says Weber. “The NAVC’s goal is to be flexible and consistently offer the highest level of education in all formats.”
Personal preferences between in-person and virtual CE have developed for many practitioners. For some, missing the networking opportunities and engaging with speakers, vendors, and colleagues in person is irreplaceable. “There is something truly powerful about live storytelling,” says Dr. Christman, “invoking emotions, feeling what the speaker feels, reading the body language, and engaging with fellow audience members.” Others, including Dr. Pachtinger, prefer the convenience of virtual learning, which doesn’t require the stresses of travel or missing family events. Regardless of individual preference, the question remains as to how state-specific licensing requirements might evolve to fit the new landscape of CE. State boards will now be tasked with deciding if the temporary pandemic waivers should become permanent changes or if required in-person learning will resume. The American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB) Practice Act Model does not discuss how CE should be delivered, only that: “The AAVSB recommends that Boards require licensees to complete a specified number of Continuing Education hours in each licensure renewal period and develop a method for ensuring compliance such as random audits.”1
With the availability of online education, including many free webinars, education providers will have to evaluate their value proposition when it comes to live events. This presents a challenge for smaller organizations, such as state and local VMAs, who have previously relied on conferences as a major revenue stream. In-person CE will need to move beyond didactic lectures, which are widely available online. Moving to more hands-on training, small group interactions with experts, and interactive workshops may become the norm for future in-person events.
Veterinary continuing education has an exciting future as technology continues to advance, bringing the opportunity for more interactive virtual learning and new ideas for how to present engaging, in-person education. As Weber says, “the need to physically be part of a community of like-minded professionals will never dissipate. Our task is to bridge the gap.”
1. AAVSB. Veterinary medicine and veterinary technology practice act model (PAM) with commentary. Updated September 2019. Accessed September 8, 2021. aavsb.org/PAM