“A congress is a kind of affirmation…"

Zhanna Kovalchuk, executive director of the European Society for Sports Traumatology, Knee Surgery and Arthroscopy, talks to AMI about the importance of knowing how, dealing with 'confident' men, and what the future holds for associations...

JL You’ve been executive director of EESKA for ten years. From an internal organisation perspective what have been the biggest changes in that time?

 ZK We are efficient and professional now - and a big part of that is because we have now got an efficient team, one that is focussed on ‘knowing how’ rather than ‘knowing that’. The importance of knowing how goes all the way down the line, if you want to be successful.

Moreover we have also grown from a community of about 2,500 to more than 15,000. Our core of members has grown gradually, but the overall community—the specialists we deal with— that has expanded hugely.

But I would say our greatest achievement was to create a certification programme for Europe, so that all practitioners can reach a certain standard, and be guaranteed as having reached it. And it’s not only their knowing the theory — what I call the ‘knowing that’— but we also test their practical ability, the ‘knowing how’ to perform certain techniques.

Another change has been our educational programme: it’s now completely accessible, and makes use of online-formats, and even more to come.

JL Certification can be a game-changer for associations. How did your programme get off the ground?

ZK Funnily enough, it was just a casual conversation that solved the puzzle for us and helped us get the format right. I was chatting with another association manager after we had joined the AC Forum in 2020. She was explaining how they’d organized one of their programmes - and I could suddenly see how to solve our own problem. It was a moment of revelation. We were considering certification ten years ago, but we were always cautious about approaching such an ambitious project. AC Forum has meant a lot for us. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have dared apply. But now we are in, and it’s an acknowledgement of our professionalism.

JL In terms of the specialty itself—your members are experts in dealing with traumatic knee injuries. What has been the standout advance in terms of treatment therapy since 2012?

ZK I’m not a doctor so I can’t speak professionally, but there clearly are trends, which promise changes. For example, there is PRP - the use of platelet-rich plasma injections in the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions which can potentially accelerate or augment the soft tissue healing process; and the use of Stem-Cells to accelerate bone healing. I would say there are more biological solutions – stimulating the body to repair itself, and anatomic solutions – restoring the ligament back to its anatomic position. And there is also computer-assisted surgery, and the use of Artificial Intelligence to create algorithms that are used to diagnose and treat patients. Young specialists can now train in 3D, which is very useful and complementary to training on specimens, which remains the best.

But, as I say, I’m not a doctor, just an interested observer…

JL Are you sporty?

ZK I’ve discovered cycling, as a means to escape into the country. This was a lucky chance: my board wanted to cycle from one congress city to the next —a bit like carrying the Olympic torch—and they dragged me along. I used an electric bike, of course—being a canny one— but anyway I caught the bug. And now you can spot me with the best of them, in my flamboyant riding-kit

 JL A fellow association executive nominated you for this interview partly, he said, because you took on the role as a woman working in a very male dominated field. Is that still the case?

ZK There are now more women specialists, and the trend is clear. For example, we now have women-specialists on our board and heading the sections and committees. So, the bastion has been breached! And to help that, we now have a ‘Women in ESSKA’ group…

JL Did that (working in a male dominated arena) come with any specific challenges?

ZK: Actually, I think it’s often easier for a woman to deal with confident (aka argumentative) men than it is for a man. Call it patience or diplomacy, either or both.

But I’ve also been lucky with my board and my voluntary leaders. I can only say I’ve been privileged to have worked over these ten years with some great leaders and personalities.

But what is also true is that it can be more exhausting for a woman doing this job. Moral courage is not something that women have in the same way that men have it. So having to fight for your corner takes more out of us. Women would rather find other ways to solve conflicts of opinion. At least I would…

JL Did the pandemic leave any lasting scars on ESSKA?

ZK It has left us with some bills to pay, certainly, tho’ we navigated quite well through some very troubled waters. Our ship is still intact, but it’s no time to relax. The pandemic certainly make us think much harder, and forced us to be inventive. For me, the last two years were extremely intense, but strangely exhilarating. My previous career as a businesswoman also helped.

JL Have the last few years forced you to evaluate or change your personal leadership style?

ZK I still find people-management the most difficult part, and the last few years have made me more sensitive about mental health. Has it changed my style? Not really, although I realize that there’s always something to improve.

two persons riding on bicycles
man in black shirt riding on white and orange bmx bike
two persons riding on bicycles
two persons riding on bicycles
man in black shirt riding on white and orange bmx bike
two persons riding on bicycles

JL How do you see the association sector evolving?

ZK On the one hand people will always want to get together, so they’ll always be forming new associations. But I would say there will now be problems over funding, problems that derive from shrinking economies.  Many associations might come to be seen as luxuries, which can no longer be afforded. The efficient ones will survive, of course, but there’s a lot of fat that needs to be trimmed off the bone. Hard times should encourage us all to ask ourselves: what are we really offering?

 JL And what about meetings? Do you think the return to meeting in-person will last? Or will virtual meetings make a comeback? What do you make of this word ‘hybrid’?

 ZK I think virtual meetings, especially when they are between professional colleagues, can only ever be a substitute for people getting together in the flesh, and discussing what really interests them.

The last few years have made very plain, what psychology also says, that we are social-beings, and we only really function in convivial groups, where there is active reciprocation.

When doctors are together, they get a lot more done than just science and education and comparing notes. Yes, the screen has now become an efficient means to learn, and our online education is proving very useful. But the important point of a congress is a kind of affirmation, where colleagues get together and have a drink, tell jokes, refresh or renew old friendships. Somehow all this makes them stronger and richer. You can’t do any of this sitting in front of a screen.

As for 'hybrid’, it really doesn’t work for our field. And it absorbs too much effort to make it worthwhile as an investment.