A Presidential farewell from Simon Cathcart

09 Jul 2020

Having completed three years as RSTMH President, I can now reflect on what has been achieved in that time, and where the Society is heading in the future.

The role has required a lot of commitment, but I feel this extended period of office has allowed me a real opportunity to give the Society a clear direction and purpose over the coming years. So how, one might ask, did I get here?

Beginnings and first challenges

I joined the Society in 1994 as an infectious diseases doctor in Liverpool, and maintained my connections when I moved to London, joining the Wellcome Trust as a medical writer. Later, as a public heath trainee, I applied and was accepted to join RSTMH council and became a Trustee, as the Society was obtaining its charitable status.

Under the revised articles it was agreed that a board member would take on the role of President, and when my predecessor (Simon Hay) stepped down (or across, to Seattle) the mantle fell in to my hands.

As previous Vice-President and long-term board member I had the necessary experience and institutional knowledge to maintain operations and deliver the next Annual Meeting.

My next challenge in 2016 was to recruit a new CEO for the Society and, after a comprehensive recruitment process, we welcomed Tamar Ghosh on board.

With the CEO appointed further changes took place: in the journals team and office management, expanding to recruit new staff for communications, membership and meetings. Support from the board of Trustees in our risk strategy allowed me to focus investment in the Society on achieving long-term growth.

New five-year strategy

Following a consultation of our members, Trustees, staff and wider network, we launched a new five-year strategy in 2017. The priority themes identified in the strategy include a continued focus on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), particularly where they intersect with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and aspects of sustainable development.

We have also prioritised malaria, particularly resistance. Emerging diseases are another area of focus, along with planetary health and drug-resistant infections.

The strategy has three strategic objectives: to strengthen our existing relationships; to deliver better impact and to improve the Society’s infrastructure.

I include some examples of how these are being met in the following.

Strengthening relationships with members and partners

Re-consolidating our relationship with ASTMH in 2017

Under the first objective, to strengthen relations with members and partner  organisations, we held a number of stewardship dinners in 2017, meeting long-standing fellows and members at Chandos House (remarkably close to Manson House on Portland Place, where many remembered the talks and dinners). These were highly successful and further events are in the pipeline.

Meetings with new and existing partners have also flourished. From two ASTMH meetings (in Atlanta and Baltimore) we re-established links with our trans-Atlantic cousin and in 2017 signed a collaborative agreement for further working, as well as consolidating the responsibility for our joint Donald Mackay Medal.

Delivering better impact for global health

Strategic objective number two is to deliver better impact for global health, RSTMH and our members. Our recent Annual Meeting, held at the Royal College of Physicians, focused on NTDs and their intersections. At the meeting, we led the launch of the first-ever International Snakebite Awareness Day – along with a global coalition of health organisations – to recognise and address snakebite as a preventable cause of morbidity and mortality.

The outcome of the Annual Meeting for RSTMH will be a document outlining the impact the Society can make and the role it can play in this area. The team are also working hard to set measurable goals to ensure that the Society’s impact across the whole strategy can be tracked, monitored and measured.

The third objective is to improve the Society’s infrastructure. This has been achieved in part by this year’s small grants round being assessed on Submittable – an online system for submission and review. This has proved incredibly useful in processing over 600 applications this year.

Furthermore, our plan to implement a new membership database will streamline much of the coordination of membership, finance and events activities.

A personal highlight

Handing over the presidential reins (and chain) to Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones

One of my personal highlights of the last three years has been the invitation to attend the Buckingham Palace garden party and wear the ceremonial chain without feeling over-conspicuous. It was a glorious June day with tea, cake and all the pomp and ceremony one would expect on such a special occasion.

Less glamorous but nonetheless essential work continued as chair of the board, meeting quarterly to agree on strategic direction and financial probity. The role of the board members is essential in helping deliver all of this. My thanks to all our Trustees and the office team who have all worked incredibly hard since their appointments.

The Society’s two journals have gone from strength to strength, and this year we have appointed two new Editors-in-Chief, Professor Brian Greenwood and Professor David Molyneux.

From the archives: a special issue of Transactions

It was also a great pleasure that, in the week of my stepping down, a special edition of Transactions we had conceived last year was published.

The issue celebrates RSTMH’s five-year strategy and at the same time demonstrates the role of Transactions in disseminating impactful research in tropical medicine and global health.

I wrote an editorial to introduce the issue, strategy and the commentaries contained in the journal:

“All areas of the Society’s work help to achieve impact in the field of tropical medicine and global health. However, Transactions, which began publication in 1908, provides a useful lens through which to evaluate the breadth of the areas to which the society has contributed throughout its history and the lasting impact of these contributions.

This special issue of Transactions was commissioned to highlight the lasting impact of the work published in the journal and provide a link from the society’s past to its goals for the future. To achieve this, we invited a number of eminent specialists to identify a key article from the Transactions archives and write a commentary that would briefly summarise the article, discuss its significance to the subject area, place it in the context of current thinking and link it where appropriate in relation to the RSTMH strategy.”

You can read more of my editorial and the commentaries on the OUP website. I anticipate that, given the response to our call for papers to be included in this edition, we will follow up with further commentaries in the future.

Looking forward

My thoughts now are looking forward, to wish our new president, Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones the best of luck with her tenure and to the Vice-President, Dr Wendy Harrison, and President-elect, Professor Malcolm Molyneux. The Society also has two new Trustees, Professor Jimmy Whitworth and Sarah Rafferty. I wish them all the best.

My next role, the first as Past President will allow me more freedom to contribute to key areas of the strategy and focus on our meeting in Liverpool next year, the European Congress on Tropical Medicine and International Health (ECTMIH).

I look forward to meeting and talking with many of you over the next 12 months and thank everyone who has supported the Society during my time as President.