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Face to face: Debbie Roepe, executive director ISSVD

“We strongly believe the work that gets done at our face-to-face events cannot be done virtually”

Debbie Roepe, executive director of The International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease is a strong advocate for face-to-face meetings.

Interview: James Lancaster

These are extraordinary times: how has the coronavirus pandemic affected The International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease?

Let me count the ways. Many of our members are on the front lines. Two of them, in Portugal, performed the first C‐section on a woman who was infected COVID-19. Most of our providers are working many more hours than usual and are separated from their families either due to quarantine measures or other factors. I could go on and on about the many horror stories I have heard, but everyone is aware that medical providers are the ones really being hit the hardest.

Our North American Chapter had to cancel their biennial scientific session, which delays the opportunity for our members to share the research they have done over the past two years. Research is slowing down and taking the back seat to daily survival, which ultimately affects the future. We hope things are better in time for our World Congress in Dublin in July 2021. This is the most important meeting of our society, typically held every two years.

Has it forced any permanent changes to how the society will operate in the future?

It is too early to tell, but we strongly believe that face-to-face meetings are vital and the sharing, networking and work that gets done at our events cannot be managed by a virtual event, so we hope this will not be a permanent change.  Hopefully we can use this newly acquired skill set to improve our educational initiatives and enhance programmes rather than replace in-person events.

How old is your organisation and how many members does it have?

Our organisation was started in 1970 by some very bright and forward‐thinking medical professionals who saw, long before others, the need for medical specialists of different specialties to work together. We have more than 500 international members from 40 countries.

Who are your members?

We are a multi‐specialty society made up of gynecologists, dermatologists, oncologists, physical therapists, nurses, sexual therapists and many other providers. Any medical professional who sees female patients or does research in this area would be a candidate for membership.

Why does your society exist? What is it trying to achieve?

We are the only international organization with a mission of global awareness, education and research in the field of vulvovaginal disease. The ISSVD promotes international communication among gynecologists, pathologists, dermatologists, and related disciplines, and works to establish international agreement on terminology and definitions of vulvovaginal diseases. We also promote clinical investigation, basic research, and dissemination of knowledge in this field.

Vulvovaginal disease is an extremely neglected field; over-looked in medical schools and other educational settings. The ISSVD puts on educational events all over the world in an effort to get the much‐needed education to medical providers. There are many national societies that have been set up to help spread this education and research in other countries and we currently have a chapter in North America and are in the process of creating chapters in India and China.

What are the major challenges facing your organisation?

Like most associations, we are struggling with cancelling events and the losses both financial and educational. Our main mission is education. We accomplish this in two ways. One through the research that our members do and present at our meetings. Right now, they are entrenched in this battle and research is put on the back burner. Secondly, we offer educational programmes. We feel strongly that more learning takes place in a face-to-face meeting where discussions and conversations are led by the needs of the group and just ‘happens’ during prolonged social engagement. This is difficult to accomplish by way of an online event.

How long have you been executive director and what were you doing before?

I have been executive director for 19 years. Before that, I was a kindergarten teacher. I love to joke that my job has not changed, only the age of the people I manage. I still spend my days planning, implementing, organizing and trying to keep others focused on their goals.

How do you decide where to meet?

In the past, it was always a great honour for the President to host the World Congress in their country, but we realized this was not always the most beneficial option for our members and could be costly and difficult to manage. We have been to most of the major countries, so we are open to looking for places that can support our scientific and educational mission in a way that supports our goals and values. We love to host events at educational facilities and have used New York University and plan to be at Trinity College in Dublin in 2021, fingers crossed.

ISSVD has recently join ICCA’s Association Community. Is peer to peer support important to association executives and, if so, why?

ICCA has been a lifeline for me. As the only full-time employee for the ISSVD, I have found an invaluable partnership with ICCA partners on both the association and supplier sides. The friendships and networking opportunities have been life changing. Our challenges are the same, so it is vital to have these connections. During the COVID-19 outbreak, I have been fortunate to share many conversations with colleagues I had previously met at ICCA association events, leading to discussions on how to proceed and best practices during this difficult time. As an organization, the ISSVD believes in collaboration and teamwork in the medical field. In the same way, it’s helpful for me as a planner to work with others in the field in the same way to ensure success for both organisations.

If you could change one thing about ‘the meetings industry’ what would it be?

I think honest and direct communications between suppliers and associations is the key to successful events. Being able to be open about our needs, concerns and dreams and working together as a team for success makes everyone feel accomplished at the end of a successful event. Even if a conversation leads us to decide that we are better off somewhere else, then that shouldn’t be considered a disappointment, but instead should be viewed positively, because in the end it likely saves a lot of disappointment on both sides.