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Striving for greater equality


July 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is what economists might refer to as a ‘black swan’ – a rare, unpredictable event which causes massive economic consequences. The first half of this year, which happens to coincide with the first six months of my presidency, falls into that category. However, of course, it is the human impact which has a greater resonance for us as healthcare professionals.

Behind the statistics and the daily reporting of numbers lie human stories of families torn apart, lives cut short and others changed as a result of COVID-19. Worse still, the pandemic and the subsequent response have highlighted the many health inequalities that exist in so many countries across the world.

Recent studies suggest that those people who were already facing the greatest deprivation have also experienced a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 and restricted access to useful medicines, while existing poor health among people in this group puts them at greater risk of more severe outcomes should they contract the virus. Added to this, the new rules and wider societal measures introduced to help control the spread of the virus – from lockdowns and social distancing to the cancellation of routine healthcare – are exacting a heavier toll, both socially and economically, on those already experiencing inequality.

What’s also become clear is that these issues are exacerbated by other deep-seated inequalities, including, among others, poorer experiences of healthcare among people within the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Of course, such inequalities are not limited to healthcare and exist across many other areas of life, all of which have been thrown into sharp focus in the US, and elsewhere in the world, as the Black Lives Matter movement campaigns for social, economic and political equality for people of colour.

A report by The Health Foundation in the UK (1) has raised an important question: will COVID-19 be a watershed moment for health inequalities? I truly hope so. In fact, I sincerely hope it will prove to be a decisive step towards eradicating broader inequalities, including discriminations in all forms.

As an organisation which has diversity deep in its roots and enshrined within its mission, ESMO denounces all forms of discrimination and inequality. Our over-arching aim is – and always has been – to continually improve the quality of cancer care and to promote equal access to that care for all patients, regardless of where they live, of whether they can afford it, of their ethnicity or any other personal circumstances.

ESMO seeks to erase boundaries in cancer care, be they across countries or specialties. As an organisation with more than 25,000 members from 160 countries, representing 40 specialities, we have been working hard over many years to break down barriers, for example through our annual ESMO congresses in Europe and in Asia, our Summits in Africa and Latin America, our Preceptorship programme in numerous regions across the world, to ensure oncologists are able to access state-of-the-art education and the latest science, collaborate and learn from each other, wherever they are.

Our many educational resources, such as the renowned ESMO Clinical Practice Guidelines, the ESMO Magnitude of Clinical Benefit Scale (ESMO-MCBS), along with dedicated initiatives such as the ESMO Leaders Generation Programme also play an important part in helping oncologists to become the best clinicians they can possibly be, at every stage of their careers. The ESMO Women for Oncology initiative too – which is especially close to my heart – is playing an important part in closing the gender gap in oncology, encouraging and supporting more women into leadership opportunities.

I am proud to be President of an organisation which is founded on the values of integrity, commitment, accountability and excellence and which has equality and inclusion as high priorities, as we continue the fight against cancer and strive for equal access to optimal care for all cancer patients. We are, after all, stronger and more effective together.

That said, we must also ask ourselves the important question: are we doing enough? The honest answer for ESMO, as for any other organisation, is that we have to do more, though the unprecedented events of this year have made that especially challenging.

As you know, the ESMO 2020 Congress will be taking place as a virtual meeting; we had to take a number of difficult decisions, including cancelling or postponing educational events, and placing other activities on hold, as playing our part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 while protecting colleagues, patients and our staff has rightly been our top priority.

Now I will, on behalf of ESMO, its members and cancer patients worldwide, repay their confidence by redoubling my efforts in delivering a programme focusing on themes which are arguably more important than ever before in light of the times we are living – in particular, equal opportunities and care. As I said in my February letter, we must do everything possible to support physicians in those parts of the world where it remains difficult to implement quality cancer care for all patients.

I believe we will make a significant stride towards achieving this aim through the establishment of a new ESMO foundation designed to help make a real, tangible difference in under-served regions and countries. The creation of the ESMO Foundation is an essential project for me and is needed for ESMO too. It gained additional importance during a conversation I had during the ESMO Summit in Africa earlier this year with Dr Peter Vuylsteke. Originally from Belgium, he has taken up a post at the University of Botswana and is helping, among others, in research on cancers especially prevalent in Botswana. Of course, we also have much to learn from clinicians in other parts of the world and must continue to collaborate and share both expertise and tools such as the ESMO Magnitude of Clinical Benefit Scale (ESMO-MCBS), which Dr Vuylsteke says is proving so important in obtaining the medicines he needs to provide the best possible care to patients in Botswana.

Over the coming weeks I will be setting out my plans for the ESMO Foundation, along with other critical initiatives, among others the development of a model for fair pricing and reimbursement of cancer medicines, a comprehensive cancer prevention plan together with policies to properly support cancer survivors. All these together will help us achieve even greater equality in all senses of the word, from equality of opportunities for our members to equality of cancer care for patients worldwide. I look forward to sharing those plans with you and to working with you to continue advancing ESMO’s mission, vision and values for the benefit of cancer patients worldwide.

Solange Peters
ESMO President


  1. The Health Foundation, “Will COVID-19 be a watershed moment for health inequalities?”, 7 May 2020, J.Bibby, G.Everest, I.Abbs

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