Wong Peng Cheang, secretary general of Asia-Pacificâ€™s first society for fertility clinicians and scientists â€“ and a very young society in the medical sphere at just 10 years old â€“ shares a coming-of-age tale of his organisation
How would you describe Asia Pacific Initiative on Reproductionâ€™s (ASPIRE) accomplishments so far since its establishment?
ASPIRE was officially formed in 2008 although it was in 2001 when a group of us came together to meet for common objectives. We held our first congress in 2006, and that sparked our serious intentions to start a formal society.
We are merely 10 years old now. I must say that things have gone really well for ASPIRE. Initially we thought we wouldnâ€™t be able to sustain a yearly meeting, so we ran the congress every two years. The first congress was in China (Changsha, Hunan); 2008 in Singapore; 2010 in Bangkok; 2012 in Osaka; 2014 in Brisbane; 2016 in Jakarta. After that, we turned the congress into an annual event. Last year the congress was held in Kuala Lumpur and this year, just this April, was in Taipei.
Thatâ€™s a reflection of how weâ€™ve gathered momentum. ASPIRE is more active now, more people know about us and are getting engaged in our activities, and our level of activity has gone up.
What motivated the establishment of ASPIRE?
A few of us opinion leaders from different countries in Asia felt that the region needed such a society. We have been learning from other specialists in the US where there is the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and in Europe where there is the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE). They are way ahead of us and are very successful in what they do. We felt that Asia-Pacific lacked such a society, so the few of us decided that we should get something going.
Does ASPIRE have an affiliation with ASRM and ESHRE?
No, but we have a fairly good collaboration with them. Every alternate year one of them will host a session at our congress, and the following year we will do the same at theirs. This is good for all congress attendees, as they get a global perspective on issues.
Many of our members are also members of these societies. I am a member of both.
Since ASPIRE members are also members of ASRM and ESHRE, do you see your association having to work harder to demonstrate its value?
Oh yes! ASRM and ESHRE are our benchmark. ASRM meetings attract 7,000 to 8,000 people each time, while ESHRE meetings attract 10,000. In terms of population, Asia-Pacific has a larger population than Europe, so hopefully ASPIRE will one day draw a much larger audience.
However, I donâ€™t think we want ASPIRE congresses to be as big, just 2,000 to 3,000 people will be ideal. Our congress this year drew 1,500, so 3,000 is achievable.
This must be an critical time for ASPIRE, as the population is shrinking in several Asian economies. What opportunities does this situation present to your work?
We have a huge population here and correspondingly have many doctors. Fertility is a problem in Asia-Pacific, so there is high demand for the specialisation and services we offer. In fact, the demand for fertility services is just on the rise. And because of that, the number of doctors that specialise in this field will also increase.
What we are providing â€“ the continuing medical training â€“ becomes critical and so relevant.
What are the challenges then?
Attracting and engaging members. We are now trying to build up our membership. In doing so, people will always ask: what is in it for us; why should we join you and pay for it?
ASPIRE needs to have something to attract them. One obvious benefit of joining ASPIRE is the heavily discounted congress registration fees, which is S$100 (US$75) less than what a non-member pays. Our membership fee used to be S$90, so attending one congress already offsets that amount paid.
Earlier this year, we ran a membership drive and reduced the membership fee to only S$10. The whole idea is to get professionals to join us and participate in our activities.
In between our congress we also run two masterclasses per year. These are smaller, for about 100 people, and focus on a niche topic. For example, a masterclass on repeated miscarriages or male infertility. Masterclasses are meant to attract professionals with a narrow interest.
Our masterclasses rotate across the region and give cities that cannot host our major congress a chance to contribute. Vietnam, for example, lacks a convention facility for 1,500 people although it is building one, so it hosts some masterclasses.
Soon, we will start a journal that publishes research articles by our members or professionals in our field.
We also help members with industry attachments.
With membership fees so low, where does ASPIRE get its operating funds?
The ASPIRE Congress is our one major source. Thatâ€™s where we get money from sponsorships and sale of exhibition booths. We are fairly lucky because there are many pharmaceutical and equipment companies that supply clinics and want to have a presence at our congress.
Of course, we are quite prudent with our expenditure, which ensures a surplus is generated at the end of our congress. We donâ€™t make a lot of money though, just enough to run the organisation and our activities.
Disruption is a hot word today. What would be the biggest disruptor for ASPIRE or the professionals you represent?
The Internet has been a great disruptor for us. Back then, congresses offered an early bird discount six months ahead and people would write in to apply. So, six months before the congress organisers would know what the turnout was going to be like.
Now, nobody registers six months ahead. They register and pay online at the very last minute. When we did our recent congress in Taipei, we were still nervous two months before the event because we didnâ€™t know how many people would be coming.
The other impact of the Internet is making more information readily available online.
Studies and research papers can now be uploaded by the authors and accessed by all. At ASPIRE, we upload all lectures from our past congresses, making them available to members who had missed the events.
The journal we are planning to do will be electronic. Information dissemination today is so easy because of the Internet.
Naturally, the concern now is with everything available on the Internet, will people still bother to attend our events?
They will. Firstly, it is always better to see things live â€“ to see and hear from the expert. You can also approach him later with your questions. Secondly, the event is a chance for you to catch up with your friends from around the world, whom you may see only once a year.
That opportunity for interaction is so important because attendees can tap each otherâ€™s brains.
The Internet cannot replace these two things, so congresses will continue but there will be fewer mega ones. People now favour smaller, focused congresses. Theyâ€™d rather meet short but intensively. Those meetings of 10,000 people with 10 simultaneous conference sessions will see tougher times because people realise that they can only be in one room at one time, and will therefore miss out on other sessions.
With information distribution now so easily, how does this impact your live events?
Organisers must now produce a very strong scientific programme. At ASPIRE we have an excellent scientific committee, and we select high quality content that is appealing to our Asia-Pacific members.
We think we know what our members like. Our members in this region are very keen on clinical topics that will benefit their practice.
In Europe, there is a slight leaning towards basic scientific stuff. These are good but are more suited for researchers.
We design content that matters, and we know we are on the right track because our attendance has been rising 10 to 20 per cent every edition.
You said the social aspect of congresses is important. Is there a need to provide more or longer social sessions?
There must be a balance. Longer, more frequent coffee breaks will make our exhibitors very happy because they will get more exposure time with our attendees. But we lose out on academic time.
In the past, medical congresses stretched across five days. People today are pressured for time. Most congresses are now three days.
So whatâ€™s the ideal ratio of social to academic time?
I donâ€™t know whether weâ€™ve found the perfect model, but for ASPIREâ€™s congresses our coffee breaks are twice a day, 30 minutes each. On Day 1 our lunch break runs for 1.5 hours, and we serve lunch in the exhibition area so participants can look around and interact with suppliers. Day 2, lunch is down to one hour.
What are your members wanting out of ASPIRE now, and have their needs changed?
Our members still want the same, that is to keep abreast of developments. How do we do that? First, we read journals. Second, we go online to look things up. If one is not so studious, then one attends a congress where for three days experts will talk about issues that matter.
Have ASPIREâ€™s events been useful in meeting that need?
Oh yes. We positioned our annual congress in April for a reason. ASRMâ€™s congress is in October while ESHREâ€™s is in early July. So every few months there will be one major congress in our field, and we like to say that the ASPIRE congress is one of the big three. (Laughs) Well, thatâ€™s the status we hope to attain for our congress.
In 2013, international medical meetings, particularly those with US and European attendees and corporate participation, were made to be more transparent on their payments and transfers of value made to physicians. Did this impact ASPIRE events?
That affected sponsored attendance for doctors. In South Korea, doctors are not allowed to accept sponsorships to attend congresses unless they are presenting a paper. In Singapore, doctors working in public hospitals are only allowed to accept one event sponsorship a year and it must be assigned to them by their chief or head of the medical board.
Resorts are out for medical events in general. No Bali, for instance. We can choose to hold an event in Bali, but we will not get sponsors.
ASPIRE congresses are only held in major convention cities.
Tell me about your Taipei congress.
The 8th Congress of ASPIRE was held at the Taipei International Convention Centre. It was in a good part of the city, with many hotels nearby so delegates can walk to the venue and back.
Airport clearance was smooth, transport to the city was swift, hotels and convention centre were of good quality, food was plentiful in our vicinity â€“ all in all a great destination, a great experience.
We had an excellent PCO in GIS. We had a faculty dinner in the National Palace Museum, which started with a one-hour tour of the exhibits and then dinner in a restaurant. Homegrown entertainment was featured.
I know, too, that many of the delegates explored Taipeiâ€™s night markets.
It sounds like the fun part of the destination matters a lot to you and your attendees.
Of course! When people travel overseas for a meeting, they hope to also have one or two days of leisure. If they donâ€™t have the luxury of time for an extension, then they would hope to have something fun during the social evenings.
We had a big group of Pakistani participants. Pakistanis need an exit visa to travel, and that process takes time. So naturally, when they left Pakistan for our congress, they hoped to also extend a couple of days for fun.
What future congresses are you working on now?
Hong Kong in 2019 and Manila in 2020. For our 2021 edition, we now considering destinations. We try to go around the region before returning to a country the congress was held in before. Osaka hosted in 2012, so we might head back to Japan in 2021 or 2022.
Where in Japan, if you do go back?
What do you look for in a destination for ASPIREâ€™s congresses?
First, the ease of access â€“ the direct flights and the ease of visa applications. Second, how expensive the city is. Third, the range and quality of convention facilities. Fourth, whether or not we can generate a surplus from the congress. Fifth, the type of tourist attractions in the city. And finally, whether ASPIREâ€™s been there before.
As mentioned before, the congress is ASPIREâ€™s main source of income so we must make sure it will attract enough attendees and generate a surplus.
Would priority be given to destinations with a convention bureau that dishes out financial support?
Ultimately we must get a surplus (from our congress takings), no matter how it comes about. It could be from sponsorships and exhibition sales, from savings by using a cheap venue, or from support provided by the convention bureau or city government.
Financial grants are very useful, but should the convention bureau or city government not do that, in kind support is appreciated too. For example, destination promotion efforts in the lead up to our congress. When we held our congress in Taipei this year, the Hong Kong convention bureau came to support our event and talk to delegates about 2019â€™s edition.
Iâ€™d like them to also be gracious hosts, for example by having a destination helpdesk at our event. Or perhaps, provision of complimentary bus or train tickets for delegates to use and explore the city for a day. These arenâ€™t expensive but they are very useful and they put the city is a great light.
Has any convention city done that for ASPIRE congresses?
No. I got that at a Geneva congress. I was given a three-day ticket for public buses and trains.
Would destinations with a large community of fertility and reproduction technology specialists get priority?
Yes, but sometimes this is uncertain. In China and India we should have thousands of fertility experts, but how many of them would actually turn up at our congress?
ASPIRE also hopes to educate the public. What has been done in this direction?
We have four target audiences: the doctors, the embryologist or the scientists, the fertility nurses, and finally the public.
So far, we have been targeting the doctors and the scientists. For our congress in Hong Kong next year, we will be introducing some content for nurses.
Patient-facing programmes are slowly coming on. We are forming a community to look at cross-border healthcare services, to understand what is needed by such patients.
All our work is being done by volunteering professionals, so we have to take one step at a time. That said, ASPIRE is making great progress.
A shining star
Professor Wong Peng Cheang is regarded as a pioneer in the fields of infertility and assisted reproduction. He was part of the team that helped to bring about Singaporeâ€™s first in-vitro fertilisation baby in 1983.
He conducted successful research on Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (GIFT), and his work on the same at Singaporeâ€™s National University Hospital (NUH) led the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Department to produce the first pregnancy in Asia via GIFT.
Some of his other accomplishments include infertility research with the World Health Organisation (WHO) Task Force on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Infertility; establishment of the Centre for Reproductive Education & Specialist Training in NUH in 2010; and attainment of honorary membership to the International Federation of Fertility Societies in 2013.
He has co-published several papers.
He was the first president of ASPIRE.
He holds appointments: professor, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, the National University of Singapore, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine; and senior consultant, Department of Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility, National University Health System.
This article was first published in TTGassociation July 2018, a sister publication of TTGmice