Interview: The strength of a profession lies in coming together as a community
After three postponements owing to coronavirus restrictions, the third European Aligner Society (EAS) congress was finally held on 7 to 9 October. Dental Tribune International’s Nathalie Schüller attended the event in Malta and there spoke with Dr Les Joffe, EAS CEO and executive secretary. Now retired from clinical orthodontics, he focuses his energies on EAS and ensuring that it flourishes. He shared his thoughts, ideas for EAS and sentiments about the congress.
Dr Joffe, you came up with the idea of EAS and have been its secretary since the beginning, seven years ago. What motivated you to start the society?
It was a conversation back in 2014. At the time, I was a key opinion leader for Invisalign, and we had a meeting in Amsterdam. I was talking to the then marketing person, Ritesh Sharma, and I told him that the difficulty with Invisalign is that most people see it as a commercial concern. I told him that they really were not doing anything about educating dentists on treating with aligners and helping develop their practice using aligners. I talked about my feeling that this was something necessary and should encompass all aligner systems and that, for me, an educational association was the best way to go about it. I knew this because I had been treasurer and then CEO of the British Orthodontic Society for seven years and we had an educational committee. Ritesh thought the idea was good as well and asked me to put together a presentation for the key opinion leaders. The next day I presented my ideas: aligners were part of the future, and we could use the society to talk not only about aligners but about what to do with them—to educate.
The feedback was very positive. Right after the presentation, as I was sitting and writing some notes, Francesco Garino and Tommaso Castroflorio approached me and proposed helping. Then on the way to the airport, I chatted with Graham Gardner, and he wanted to come on board as well.
“I love running the society”
Were you a practising orthodontist at that time?
Yes. That was in 2014, and I retired in 2016.
Are you happy with this new chapter of your life, running the society?
Yes. I love running the society. I think about how we started: we had no money, no constitution, I just went back to my old records and documents and put together a set of rules and all the things that are necessary for an association. I had a meeting with a lawyer friend to make sure all was okay, and then we reached out to companies for sponsorship.
I have been talking to exhibitors, delegates and presenters, and I found that all agreed that we need live events, that hybrid or virtual conferences cannot make up for meeting people face to face and the personal exchange you get from a live event. What do you think?
Virtual events are okay; it is a bit like reading a book. A face-to-face meeting is different. You do a little bit of learning and then you start talking to people and your ideas start broadening; you start to talk about a range of different subjects, which you don’t do in a virtual meeting—it is too narrow and constrained.
When we started working on this congress, you surely remember that it was supposed to take place in March 2020, and at that time we had about 600 delegates registered. Then we had to postpone the congress to October 2020 and then to March 2021 and finally to October 2021. Most people stayed with it until about July, which was the deadline, I had given to withdraw, for me to know how many attendees we could expect. By July, about 50–60 people had cancelled. I kept pushing the cancellation date to give a chance for people to see what the restrictions would be like for them and enable them to decide whether they could and would attend. The final cancellation date to be able to get a full refund was in fact a week before the congress started. By that stage, I had probably about 160–180 cancellations and about 80 people confirmed, but still around 300 people who had not cancelled or confirmed.
We also were depending on the coronavirus-related regulations, and as you know, that is something that can change very fast. Two weeks before the congress started, the Maltese health regulations were set and these prevented us from having more than 100 people in a room, having catering inside the exhibition centre, having more than six seats at a table for the workshops, etc. I did not know what to do and decided to count on about 150 people coming and work out the logistics based on that number.
The number of attendees increased from the first congress to the second one. But for the coronavirus, this figure would have increased again. In the end, 221 people attended, well over half the attendees of the last congress, and they came from 27 countries. Are you happy you decided to hold the congress anyway?
Part of the reason we decided to go on with the event was of course logistics. We had already postponed and given down payments for the necessary services. We wanted of course for the congress to take place, and to me, it was the best time to have it. If the winter goes badly and we have another outbreak, next March our spring congress might be cancelled as well, so the decision to hold our third congress now was taken.
I am happy because 221 attendees, considering all the regulations and restrictions the pandemic has brought, is a good number. Of course, I am sad for the exhibitors; it was not as good for them with a lower number of attendees than what we had hoped for.
One of the factors that reduced traffic to the exhibitors’ hall was also due to the restrictions imposed by the health authorities because of the coronavirus. As you know, in Venice, the participants had to walk through the exhibitors’ area to go to the conference hall, and the coffee-breaks—which we could not have here—were also in the exhibitors’ hall and an opportunity for the delegates to take time to visit the exhibitors.
“We want to have our fourth EAS congress in Turin in Italy in May 2023”
Dr Castroflorio in his closing remarks at the congress announced that your spring meeting will take place on 6 and 7 May 2022 in Oporto in Portugal, so EAS is motivated to move forward and a lower attendance for this year’s congress has not been a setback for you?
It is not an easy thing to plan such an event. We are now moving forward and thinking positively to plan our next spring meeting in Oporto. We want to have our fourth EAS congress in Turin in Italy in May 2023.
We could not know what was going to happen here in Malta. These are certainly unusual times we have been living in in the last two years, but I would say that the next congress, provided we are no longer living through a pandemic, will be a great event for delegates and exhibitors to attend, and I hope they will be with us then.
I am now planning what we will do for the spring meeting, and I even considered the idea of an autumn meeting next year. I am also thinking of collaborations with other societies for the spring meeting. We are doing an educational collaboration with Invisalign, and we are launching a board of aligner orthodontics as a certification board. Those are important to me.
The main thing is that next year January or February we hope we will no longer be dealing with the restrictions of living with the pandemic. It probably will never be normal as we knew it before but hopefully a lot closer to normal.
Editorial note: Dr Les Joffe completed his dental training and his postgraduate orthodontic training at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in South Africa. He was an honorary senior clinical tutor at the postgraduate orthodontic department of University College London’s Eastman Dental Institute in London in the UK from 1998 to 2008. In 2000, Joffe and some of his colleagues set up Orthoworld 2000 to provide a corporate setting for managing orthodontic practices. Orthoworld introduced Invisalign to the UK in 2001. The same year, Joffe gained his Invisalign certification and began undertaking aligner treatments using a variety of aligner systems. From 2012 to 2015, he was on the European advisory board for Invisalign Europe. In 2017, he retired from the clinical setting to take over running the European Aligner Society full-time. He is a member of the British Orthodontic Society and World Federation of Orthodontists. More information about EAS can be found at www.eas-aligners.com.