Articles and special reports

The challenges facing scientific societies during the pandemic

By : Andrea Vargas
ExPresidente 2018 - 2020 Sociedad Uruguaya de reumatología.

Estefanía Fajardo
Periodista científica de Global Rheumatology by PANLAR.

20 January, 2021

"The Uruguayan Society of Rheumatology, one of the leading rheumatology societies in the continent, initiated a process of renewal and change in communication strategies with its members, through the technique of social mapping, which has allowed them to adapt during the pandemic. The experience, reported by its now former president, Andrea Vargas, is described in this special GRP report. "

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SUR: Social mapping as a strategy of change and adaptation in a changing environment.

The Uruguayan Society of Rheumatology, one of the leading rheumatology societies in the continent, initiated a process of renewal and change in communication strategies with its members through the technique of social mapping, which has allowed them to adapt during the pandemic. 

The experience, reported by its now former president, Andrea Vargas, is described in this special GRP report.

In 2019 the Uruguayan Society of Rheumatology (SUR) turned 80 years old. In this case, 80 years was not just the beginning of a new decade, it was the beginning of a reinvention process. A new structure that allowed, among other things, the renewal of their communication strategies. 

“This motivated a renovation process, redefining our objectives and approaches to health promotion. Updating our communication strategy (form, content, and media) was the key challenge to boost our goals”, says Andrea Vargas, former president of the Uruguayan Society of Rheumatology.

Thinking about it was only the first step of a long road. Then, questions started to arise: Can we do it alone? Are we, the members of the Board of Directors, capable of carrying out a development plan for SUR? The unanimous answer was no, we are not capable” she recalls.


“To pursue this issue, we sought support from professionals specialized in institutional or organizational communication, working in social change management and the promotion of innovation. Communication for change or development is a specialty with experts, training, and global tradition. It differs from persuasive or advertising approaches in that it supports organizational processes with social purposes in education, using its own methodologies that make transformation participatory and sustained over time” explains Dr. Vargas.


Together with the experts they undertook the way to go. The basis was institutional strengthening by developing training in communication technologies and aspects of its management. “We prioritized the development of our identity, opened new internal and external channels and managed relations with various stakeholders close to SUR”, she says, adding that it was through systematic planning that they were able to accelerate processes and show new results. 


“We have recognized communication as a strategic factor for the practice of our profession: physicians and SUR need to face “mediation”, health promotion in multiple aspects cannot be achieved by going only through the health sector path”, says Vargas.

They operate beyond the office. Work closely with government (regulators, science, technology and innovation and education systems), civil society (other medical associations at local and international level, and patient groups), as well as private organizations (health service providers, academia, the media, various industries such as pharmaceuticals, technology, and supplies, among others).

Consequently, they needed a map of the ecosystem in which they work in order to map out joint objectives and influence the environment. And so they did. They developed a social mapping methodology which allowed them to know that they have relationships with 86 institutions and determined where they were present and absent, doing what and how, to be aware and act systemically. 

That was not it, however. There were still new elements to consider, new strategies to develop and new doors to open.

Another aspect of mediation is technological management which includes telemedicine. SUR has become aware that putting it into practice goes beyond conducting a remote consultation or assisting a colleague and, through him/her, a patient with a complex clinical picture.

“We have experimented using virtual collaboration environments intensively. In practice, it involves relying on software and mobile applications that integrate our projects and bring colleagues to work together in the cloud”, says Vargas. 

The challenge has been learning to work remotely within an application called Slack, which brings together the power of WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, and Google Suite in a simple and intuitive environment to facilitate teamwork. “But it is not about incorporating software, it is about gaining participation from colleagues across the country, using technology to advance projects, learning new skills and adopting habits that collectively make us save time, shorten distances and focus on going further”, she explains. 

This new reality of remote consultations has taken by surprise the healthcare provider system. That is why they decided to collaborate by decompressing the demand for specialists through periodic publications on the blog, mailing, multimedia materials and a visual guide to health care. “The guide for mobile devices allowed us to reach hundreds of people instantly via WhatsApp and mitigate the anxiety caused by uncertainty” she adds. 


The starting point with respect to patients was to investigate and reflect on what tools and capacities were necessary to play a leading role in health promotion, to create supportive environments for patients and their families, and for colleagues. To this end, they conducted surveys, focus groups and discussion sessions with patients and colleagues from the research groups and the Foundation of Rheumatic Diseases Professor Herrera Ramos

"We are focusing on organizing dialogue and response to different audiences through our new website, where we developed sections and produced content and events. We channeled a multidisciplinary conference and webinar schedule that is broadcast via Facebook Live, YouTube and WhatsApp on a fortnightly basis. Surprisingly, we reached an enthusiastic audience of thousands of patients that grows with each event," says Vargas.

At the same time, they worked on supporting the consultation by approaching treatments in a holistic and informed way, answering frequently asked questions - coming as inquiries to the site and social networks or through colleagues - as a way to support, strengthen and develop patients' personal skills, healthy habits, and autonomy.

In order to promote health among the overall population, SUR approached journalists and, through them, public opinion. "We emphasized in the interviews that health is the main resource to perform and achieve a life project. We emphasized that health is a social environment for personal and community development and, therefore, that multiple factors must be modified to improve psychological, physical and social wellbeing," the specialist says.

The aim of these interviews is to disseminate and educate the population about rheumatic diseases and general welfare as a means to reach equity in health, making it easier for all people – patients or not – to be aware of and control the factors that affect them, and to achieve the best possible quality of life.


The change to the Society’s image was supported both by a new aesthetic or visual system with a new logo and multiple apps, and by promoting a “good presence” on the Internet, in every public appearance, event announcement and personal profiles.

"We are inviting members to manage their professional and academic profiles on social networks such as LinkedIn and Academia to highlight the value of their trajectory and improve the visibility of our collective. We moved the records of SUR's social life and fellowship activities from Facebook to Instagram, so they are not on the public domain," Vargas says.

In addition, she says, they have continued along the path that has characterized SUR throughout its history. They have strengthened the already excellent relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, counting on them to sponsor and promote the various activities for doctors and patients. And as results they have presented the metrics and statistics of the audience of their website and social networks. 


"Our study groups are resuming their work virtually aiming to support rheumatology patients and physicians. We have developed digital support materials: these are "virtual prescriptions" based on printed booklets addressed to patients with links and QR codes that lead to multimedia content on different topics developed in different formats by SUR study groups", says Dr. Vargas.

The first prescriptions address issues such as general posture, occupational health, nutrition, diet, orthotics, footwear, and sports practice. Some of these are already on the site in the patient section.


“Uruguayan rheumatology and this board in particular have a majority female composition, and it is recognized because it has proved to be a powerful agent of sustained change; with a good working environment, considering the diversity of opinions”, explains the specialist. 

She adds that in the meantime, women continue to be severely underrepresented in political, business and management decision making. Organizations and countries with a higher proportion of women as decision-makers have better health and equity outcomes with lower levels of income inequality.

“This pandemic has highlighted the virtues of female leadership when countries such as Germany, Iceland, Scotland and New Zealand have registered the lowest global impact. Based on this evidence, lets continue to pursue gender parity in the composition of the boards of directors of medical societies and healthcare providers”, she concludes.

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