From the President: July 2020

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By the time you read this column most of you will know that we have had to take the decision to postpone our World Council and conference planned for Abu Dhabi in November, to be hosted by the Emirates Medical Association. It was a difficult decision for many reasons, not least because the extenuating circumstances in which we all find ourselves are not accounted for in our organisation’s Bylaws. That is not a complaint – indeed, it would have been surprising if the weird and frightening situation across the world today could have been imagined over the years, during the various iterations and revisions of our Bylaws.

The decision to postpone was taken after seeking and listening to advice from our ‘elders’, some of whom have been involved in WONCA for 50 years and more! We also took legal advice from our resident doctor/lawyer Prof Rich Roberts. And we had numerous discussions with the Abu Dhabi Host Organising Committee (HOC) and the Professional Conference Organiser (PCO). As the discussion continued over some weeks, our colleagues in Abu Dhabi took the view that they could not guarantee safety of those who would want to attend the Council and conference in November. A question asked of our Executive in May showed that only two members felt they would be able to participate in person, due to their own country / state travel restrictions and quarantine arrangements. As I will describe later, this posed a separate problem!

With time creeping towards a date when people have to make decisions about international travel, we then looked at the possibility of holding the World Council meeting and conference virtually. The PCO came up with really impressive systems for holding virtual meetings and, despite the absence of face to face chats and renewals of friendships, some on Executive were keen to proceed with a virtual event.

Most people will never have heard of Roberts Rules of Order. No relation to our own Rich Roberts! But the book is used by WONCA (Council and Executive) and many other organisations as their parliamentary procedures manual. The manual (we are currently using the 11th edition) provides procedures and structure on issues such as meetings, voting, quorum arrangements, conflicts of interest and much, much, more.

Based on Roberts Rules of Order, we could have called an Extraordinary Meeting of Council. But we still faced the problem of only those eligible Member Organisations, represented in person at the Extraordinary Meeting of Council, being entitled to vote. Given the difficulty of people travelling and participating in person, this would have presented a serious challenge for reaching the required quorum. There was no flexibility. Any change or suspension to that rule would be a decision to be taken by Council – which brought us back to square one. If Council cannot meet in person, how can Council vote to suspend a rule?

As events progressed and second waves of the pandemic began to erupt, the decision about postponement or holding the World Council and conference became increasingly urgent. With most members of Executive having previously indicated that they would not be able to participate in person, it was crucial to consult with our Member Organisations – the members of Council – in the decision-making process.

At the same time as we wrote to Member Organisations, the Royal Australian College of GPs, which is scheduled to host the World Council and conference in 2022 contacted the WONCA Secretariat to suggest that they would be content to defer hosting the ‘2022’ World Council and conference until the following year. This was a relief, as the alternative would have been to hold a World Council and conference in two successive years – a massive undertaking.

It was really heartening and very important for us to receive speedy feedback from the Member Organisations that they were happy to postpone this year’s planned World Council and conference until 2021.

Everyone working in family medicine is acutely conscious not just of the challenges of detecting and treating patients with COVD19 but with the backlog of ‘normal’ illnesses and diseases which may have gone undetected and untreated due to patients being wary of consulting their family doctors while the risk of contracting COVID was high. To suggest that there will be a tidal wave of demand for family medicine services after the initial phase of the pandemic is over is not an understatement.

Many of our Member Organisations thanked us for consulting with them and for keeping them in the picture of where our discussions were going. Quite a few commented how much they appreciated being consulted and offered examples of their own displaced arrangements for in-person meetings which had to be cancelled or postponed. See the CEO’s column for the outcome of deliberations and news of other cancellations and postponements.

WONCA is an organisation of organisations. Our strengths stem from our members, those national colleges and academies which support the 500,000+ individual family doctors and GPs globally. We do not take that support for granted. The Member Organisations in each region vote to select their own region president, who, among other responsibilities, represent the region on Executive. The President, President-Elect, three Members at Large and the Young Doctor representative are elected directly by the full Council onto Executive: they will each remain in their posts until the next meeting of World Council and are honoured to do so.

Our constituents are our members; in the regions and globally. We do not just welcome their participation in the decision-making process: we depend on it. Especially in such unprecedented times, we warmly thank our Member Organisations for their continued support and collegiality. Your Executive does not take momentous decisions lightly.

Please stay safe and be kind to each other.

Donald Li