Newsmaker Interview

EuroTimes Editor-in-Chief Sean Henahan talks to ESCRS President Oliver Findl about the many challenges facing ophthalmology during a time of multiple world crises.

Sean Henahan

Posted: Sunday, May 1, 2022

EuroTimes Editor-in-Chief Sean Henahan talks to ESCRS President Oliver Findl about the many challenges facing ophthalmology during a time of multiple world crises.

ET: What a time to become president! As if the COVID pandemic wasn’t enough, you have war to your east in Ukraine, and the planet faces a major challenge in the form of climate change. Let’s start with Ukraine. What is the ESCRS response to the current crisis?

OF: This took us all by surprise. Two or three days after the invasion, we rolled up our sleeves and asked how we could help. We were in continuous contact with our Ukrainian colleagues as we were to hold an ESCRS symposium in Kyiv at the beginning of March. It became clear we should do something as quickly as possible. We reached out to our industry contacts, and they responded quickly. Then the question became logistics, how to get medical supplies into the country.

Our managing director Tom Ogilvie-Graham has some experience in that field. He visited Poland and Lviv and helped set up two warehouses where we keep aid supplies. We also have some contacts with United Nations for transport. Our Ukrainian colleagues have a good network and can anticipate where the supplies will be needed most. This should be well underway by the time this [magazine] goes to print.

In the first days, our colleagues were obviously worried about their families, and there were major efforts to get as many women and children out of there as possible. We got messages and photos from them in bunkers during shelling. The men are staying to help patients. It is difficult for us to understand what is happening. I believe some are filling in as combat surgeons.

ET: What sort of supplies is the ESCRS providing?

OF: Basic supplies such as suture materials, viscoelastics, and instruments needed for ocular trauma surgery. One company donated a small phaco/anterior vitrectomy machine which had been used by military personnel. One company is donating surgical loupes, which can be used if a microscope isn’t available.

We are trying to organise—together with EURETINA and the European Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (ESOPRS)—a network of doctors in Europe and North America to provide 24-hour second opinions and consulting. The goal is to help surgeons in Ukraine who may not be trauma surgeons or vitreoretinal surgeons. This will be done via mobile phone.

ET: Millions of refugees have arrived in Western Europe. How are ophthalmology departments accommodating colleagues and patients?

OF: I received emails from some female Ukrainian ophthalmologists who were able to flee and are now here with their children – even in Vienna. I have met two who arrived in the last weeks. I’m discussing with our hospital management ways to integrate them into our hospital. There are issues with red tape, licensing, language barrier, etc. For starters, we might use them as translators when we are seeing Ukrainian patients, of which there are quite a few in our area. They may have eye problems of all sorts that need to be addressed. Eventually, the doctors may be able to help their fellow Ukrainians directly.

Throughout the EU, the refugees are automatically socially insured. If refugees have been treated before in Ukraine, for example, with intravitreal injections for AMD, that should get continued without a pause. That is something we learned with COVID – intervene quickly to maintain care. So, from that perspective, we may be a little better off than we might have been before the pandemic.

ET: What about our Russian colleagues?

OF: This is a very difficult question for all sides. My belief is that we are all medical doctors, and the highest of our priorities is to take care of our patients. I believe our Russian colleagues feel the same way. That is why we have become doctors. I have been in touch with Russian colleagues. It is very difficult for them: they are locked into their country now and not able to speak freely.

ET: How are things looking for the annual ESCRS Congress in Milan?

OF: We were sad we could not have our winter meeting in Vilamoura in person in February, but that would have been too risky. It looks like COVID is easing up in Europe now. Currently, we are very confident Milan will take place in person. We have set up a very full programme. For those who cannot attend because they are too far away or their regulations make it difficult, there will also be a hybrid component.

We have substantially revamped the Congress. We realised that, especially for junior doctors, there has been a two-year gap in training. We will have significantly more wet labs and basic courses than we did in Paris, our last full-scale meeting. Amsterdam was a successful hybrid meeting. Milan will be hybrid, but we are really emphasising the face-to-face side.

Of course, there will be a lot of sessions on cataract and refractive surgery. But we will also have a cornea and glaucoma day on Friday and a combined symposium with our paediatric colleagues from WSPOS.

The general programme offers a lot to young ophthalmologists. I’m hoping this will be very valuable for young doctors whose training was interrupted. In addition to a YO day and YO symposium, there will be a track with courses and wet labs tailored to their needs. As in the years before, after the President’s dinner on Saturday, the young ophthalmologists are invited to join us in the disco and have a party.

We’re also organising a new element called iNovation. It takes place Friday, before the ESCRS meeting. It is a meeting of industry partners, key opinion leaders, and start-up companies looking at trends and challenges of ophthalmology. I’m looking forward to it—it will be pretty exciting.

ET: The world is also facing an existential threat in the form of climate change. How is the ESCRS responding?

OF: Even in the midst of COVID and the Ukraine war, we need to address the sustainability issue. Four percent of the world’s total trash is medical waste. And of that, cataract surgery is a key contributing factor. We will be meeting with ASCRS and APACRS to find ways to reduce waste and reduce our carbon footprint in the operating theatre.

This will be a theme at the conference. At the opening ceremony, we’re going to have a young ophthalmologist from the Netherlands who is very involved in sustainability describing the problems and possible solutions we could implement.

Conferences have a major carbon footprint. My aim is to make our meetings carbon neutral at the latest by next year. We are heading that way in Milan. We are working with a company that focuses on sustainability and congresses. They are helping us understand what we are doing and how we can reduce our carbon footprint. Delegates registering for the meeting will have the option of paying a fee to offset the effect of flying to the meeting; I very much hope that all will participate. I started offsetting all my flights last year.

We will be using more recyclables and placing an emphasis on sustainable food options. My ideal would be for people to take a step towards less red meat, maybe refrain from eating meat altogether during the four days of the meeting.

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