From the President: WONCA Can, Can CUN

August, 2010

Hurricane Wilma. World financial crisis. Border violence. Visa problems. These were some of my thoughts last May as our plane touched down at Cancun International Airport (CUN). In 2008, Hurricane Wilma, the most intense storm in the history of the Atlantic basin, wiped out much of the infrastructure in the Yucatan peninsula. In 2009, the world financial crisis drained the resources of many global organizations and threatened their viability. In 2010, the U.S. State Department warned against travel to Mexico and many from other countries reported difficulties getting a visa to enter Mexico. Could the Mexican college overcome these challenges? Would the World Conference be a success? They did and it was!

History was made in Cancun. The World Council agreed to bylaws changes that assured better gender balance among our leadership. The Council also adopted proposals submitted by GROW (Group to Redesign the Operations of WONCA), the committee that was charged with developing recommendations to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of World WONCA. The World Conference theme of the Millennial Development Goals focused our attention on what family doctors can do to promote equity, social justice, and sustainable development. More than 3000 of us joined together to learn more, share ideas, and have fun.

New President of WONCA Prof Rich Roberts (right) with President Elect Prof Michael Kidd (left) and Immediate Past President Prof Chris Van Weel (centre).

In my Presidential Address, I mentioned the important lessons of the Mayans and those who came to the Yucatan before us. Among Native Americans, there is a tradition of looking forward seven generations when considering decisions that will affect our successors and their environment. WONCA must take the same long view as we plan our future.

WONCA has never been more influential. Over the past 38 years, we have grown to 122 member organizations in more than 100 countries that represent over 250,000 family doctors and more than 90% of the world’s people. In Cancun, we learned of the exciting work WONCA is doing in many important areas, including cancer and palliative care, classification, complexity science, education, elder care, environment, ethics, gender equity, informatics, mental health, research, rural practice, and women’s health. We now work closely with the World Health Organization and are asked to meet frequently with numerous national and world leaders interested in improving health care and the quality of people’s lives.

Yet, WONCA has never been more vulnerable, given our rising expectations and very limited funds. The evidence is compelling that the most equitable and effective health care systems are centered in primary care. The huge gaps in health care and outcomes between countries rich and poor confront our notions of equity. The desperate need for more resources and greater capacity in many countries, especially in Africa and central Asia, demand our attention and support. We must train many more family doctors and assure their continuing quality. We have much to do to accomplish our goal of a family doctor for every family. We must look inside as we look outside.

Looking inside, we cannot sustain our many global initiatives on an average annual budget of USD 750,000, with the equivalent of only 2 full-time staff – we need to be at about ten times those levels. While we must increase dramatically our resources, we must also be mindful of the limited ability of our member organizations to absorb dues increases and our desire to be less reliant on pharmaceutical or other commercial support. The way forward will likely come through more and better conferences and other educational offerings that family doctors are willing to invest in, as well as the development of products and services such as classification systems, software, and consultations to governments and international agencies.

I am very excited about the future of WONCA, just as I am excited about the future of family medicine. Leaders like Professor Chris van Weel have brought us to this moment of great possibility. Chris has been a tireless advocate for WONCA, crossing the globe many times to share our message of primary care, equity, and social justice. He has been such an effective diplomat and teacher that I can’t imagine not having him at Executive Committee meetings. Most importantly, he has become a good friend. Fortunately, he will be on the Executive for another year. We have an extraordinary group on the Executive who will take WONCA to even greater heights. I look forward to continuing to work with Alfred, Yvonne, and Gillian – they seem to accomplish the impossible with grace and good humor. They remind me time and again that when it comes to big challenges, WONCA is up to the task.
We learned once more in Can CUN, WONCA can. Yes, we can.

Professor Rich Roberts