CMW international reporter, Oliver Thomas, has sat down with Professor Shlomo Vinker (pictured), European president of WONCA, to discuss the 27th WONCA European Conference. Click here to read the feature in the CMW May/June 2022 Magazine.
The World Organisation of Family Doctors (WONCA) is set for its 27th edition of the European Conference, taking place at the ExCeL London, 28 June-1 July 2022.
WONCA’s first in-person conference since the start of the pandemic aims to bring together family doctors and healthcare professionals from across Europe to meet, discuss and implement positive change.
CMW sat down with Professor Shlomo Vinker, European president of WONCA, to discuss the upcoming event and the contemporary issues with organising international conferences.
This year’s WONCA European Conference is taking place in London, UK. A decision that was made by WONCA’s European Council, a body of representatives from all its 42 member countries, who decide upon a destination and venue through a bidding process three years in advance of the event.
Professor Vinker highlights how the strong home support for the conference was a crucial factor in London’s successful bid, as local financial assistance is key to the event’s economic sustainability
“We’ve tried to recruit local sponsorship, which was quite successful in the UK,” comments Vinker. “It’s not usual in other countries, as normally a local industry doesn’t like to support international conferences. You need to build connections and infrastructure over a sustained period, which is very difficult.”
For instance, Vinker states that in the last WONCA European Conference in 2019, the host destination, Bratislava, only saw 100 local doctors from Slovakia attend. However, it is expected that 800-1,000 participants from the UK are going to attend, signifying the large home support for the conference.
Vinker comments: “This is the difference that makes the conference economically sustainable.”
Additionally, the WONCA European president highlighted the importance of a strong local member organisation, such as the Royal College of General Practitioners. Having a strong local member organisation acts as a pull factor for sponsorship and large local attendance.
“The Royal College is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year,” states Vinker. “So, they have a very big motivation to successfully host this meeting.”
London’s global connections and geographic accessibility were highlighted as another key factor for its successful bid. Around 60% of the delegates are expected to be international, meaning that London’s global accessibility (six airports) is essential for attracting wide ranging participants.
The conference will be held at ExCeL London, an exhibition and international convention centre located in the Royal Docks region of London.
“I know that everything is expensive in London, but ExCeL London has reasonable costs,” states Vinker. “We’re not using the entire facility, only around a third of its capacity. The part we’re using fits excellently to our needs.”
Engagement and going hybrid
During the pandemic, WONCA had to switch two of its European conferences to a completely virtual format (Berlin 2020/ Amsterdam 2021).
The 2022 event in London will be the first in-person European conference since Bratislava in 2019. Despite the option to attend the conference virtually, Vinker considers that the vast majority of participants will be there in-person.
Vinker believes that the engagement of in-person experiences will be a significant motivating factor to bring people to London.
“I can tell you from my own experience, when you’re going to a conference your schedule is closed,” highlights Vinker. “But if you are staying at home for a virtual conference of a couple of days, most people will continue to work. Therefore, the time that you spend actively engaged in the conference from home will actually be quite low.”
Vinker states that screen burnout is also a problem WONCA encountered during virtual conferences throughout the pandemic: “You cannot stay for too many hours and listen to lectures in front of a screen. It’s difficult and non-interactive.”
While attending a virtual event can be financially beneficial, especially for participants from lower income backgrounds, many medical professionals are monetarily assisted to attend conferences.
“In medicine, you have to understand that many participants are subsidised by third parties,” says Vinker. “This could be academic institutions, associations, or pharmaceutical companies. In the end, delegates don’t personally spend on flights and foreign transport. For many participants it is all covered by a third party, so people like to go in-person.”
Nonetheless, Vinker also understands the need to offer virtual platforms for its conferences going forward. Firstly, the continued uncertainty around the pandemic still means the flexibility offered by a virtual format is invaluable.
“We may be in the honeymoon period of the pandemic, but there is still unpredictability,” emphasises Vinker. “Where will we be in June? What will have happened by September? We still don’t know.”
This uncertainty has meant rising costs for delegates, who can no longer plan their trips far in advance. This has forced many to make reservations closer to their trips, at a more expensive rate.
“For myself, before Covid-19, I made all my accommodations or reservations one year in advance,” notes Vinker. “I’ve been to the UK twice this year. In January, I had to do a Covid-19 test in Israel and then a day two test in the UK and then another coming back into Israel. However, in April I did nothing. So, it is very difficult to predict.”
This unpredictability and late decision-making by delegates also increases the costs for event organisers. According to Vinker, this has been no different for WONCA: “As an organiser, it gives us a lot of stress because people make the decisions as late as possible.”
This inability to know exact numbers in advance considerably damages the ability for event organisers to plan ahead, raising the costs of preparation.
Looking to future of WONCA European Conferences, Vinker will observe similar medical international conferences to gauge their uses of hybrid formats and will look to take inspiration from their successes.
Legacy and contemporary issues
As WONCA 2022 will be the first in-person event since the onset of the pandemic, many of the topics will focus on the impact of Covid-19 to the family medical community.
“So usually, we concentrate on chronic and acute diseases and preventive measures for them,” states Vinker. “But nowadays, it’s the first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic started. So, all those topics will be around influences of Covid-19.”
Sessions will look at themes such as how Covid-19 impacted diabetic patients, or the potential impact of burnout for family doctors and general practitioners.
“Not only from a retrospective perspective but also for the future,” adds Vinker. “What will happen after Covid-19? What will stay with us? What did we do good? What did we do less good? And how it will project for the future?”
This content will not only provide invaluable legacies for the UK’s medical professionals, but the European family doctors community.
Similarly, WONCA 2022 will look to provide content on contemporary issues currently impacting European family doctors. One topic that will be reviewed in detail is the ongoing impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We are trying to allocate sessions to the situation in Ukraine,” states Vinker. “Because family doctors are treating the refugees inside Ukraine and the millions that have left the country into other regions of Europe. Therefore, it is critical to make sure Ukraine is part of many discussions and allocated sessions.”
As the first in-person meeting in three years, the WONCA European Conference is set to be a ‘must attend’ event for the family medicine community.