What is WONCA? And who is Vasco da Gama?

Please note that there are three new conference exchanges for France, Italy and Spain on our Opportunities page. Deadline mid August.

Serendipitous beginnings

Two and a half years ago, in my ST2, I applied for the Erasmus exchange which is a two-week fully funded exchange programme to Europe. When I applied, I was rooting for France and, being a massive Francophile, I had lived in Paris for three months and was desperate to return. Fortune would have it that I was allocated Turkey and, I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed and may have even thrown a mini-tantrum. I cringe at the memory of emailing Bernedeta (at the time, I knew her only as “Dr Bernedeta Bridgwood, RCGP JIC Erasmus lead”) begging for France but the response was “no, I’m afraid we only have places in Turkey left.”

I could have cancelled. Taking two weeks of annual leave to observe healthcare in a country that I knew nothing about is not a small ask. But fine, I’ll take it.

Last night of my exchange in Izmir with my Turkish counterparts teaching me seductive Turkish dancing!

My Programme Directors seemed to think different. They told me that WONCA World was in Istanbul that year and that I should so apply for the Lotte Newman Prize, a faculty prize, funding the winner to attend the WONCA conference. My PD warned me that no one had won it from Whipps but it was worth a go. Now, I actually have to point out that most faculties have a funding pot for WONCA. It’s on the faculty websites and usually they send them by email as well. Always scroll to the end of every RCGP email, even if you only skim read it, because I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but the opportunities always seem to be in fine print at the bottom.


I will talk about my Erasmus exchange (which was so totally great and I recognise now that I was just being a princess) in a later post but today I want to talk about WONCA and Vasco da Gama.


WONCA is the first 5 initials for the World Organization of National Colleges, Academies and Academic Associations of General Practitioners/Family Physicians. I have to google it every time. Essentially, this is the big organisation of international GPs who are passionate about improving patients’ quality-of-life worldwide through high-quality primary care. There is WONCA World which is subdivided into several regional divisions. I’m only involved with WONCA Europe due to the JIC, and WONCA Asia Pacific due to my connections with Japan. Each region has an annual conference (Europe was in Prague this year and Krakow next year) and WONCA World happens every two years (Rio 2016, straight after the Olympics, and, Seoul 2018). I’m already practising my Korean for WONCA Seoul because I’ll get to hang out with my really good South Korean GP friend and eat all the amazing food – if you haven’t tried Korean food, it’s incredible.

Vasco da Gama (VDGM) is the young doctor’s movement for WONCA Europe, presided by one of our own British GPs, Dr Claire Thomas, who is one of the hardest working people I’ve met on the WONCA circuit. They run a pre-conference which runs for 2 days before the main WONCA conference and it’s only open to GPs in training and First 5 from Europe.

(From L to R) Rebekah, Rakesh, Emily, Camille, Dragon from Krakow, Karishma, and me at WONCA Prague

I have to admit that I really love the VdGM pre-conference. The WONCA conference itself is work for me and, although it’s really enjoyable, I’ve always got one eye on making all the British delegates feel welcome and connected, and the other eye making sure that the JIC are running smoothly.

The VDGM pre-conference is where I have no responsibility and it’s just fun. Not just that but it really enthuses me. Having a moment to reflect on the challenges that we face in the UK, and realising they are not unique to our country but are faced by young GPs all over Europe is somewhat reassuring. Who knew that shopping lists, issues with time management and poor political climates crossed cultural boundaries.

Learning about the difficulties faced by other countries makes me feel part of a international primary care community but also makes me feel that we don’t have it all bad in the U.K. GP’s from our neighbouring countries look up to the philosophy of the National Health Service, permeated with principles of equity and inclusion, which has general practice at the forefront. And the training that we get, however suboptimal it can feel at times, is unparalleled. I almost feel guilty of how I felt during those painful hours spent writing my portfolio self-reflection, wondering if anyone was going to ever read it anyway. I’m seeing the flip-side of the coin again – tedious form-filling in return for a training scheme where someone has actually thought about what needs to be on the curriculum. I might look slightly green-eyed at some of my European colleagues without a portfolio but do I really want their lack of mentorship and guidance instead?

My message to unsure newcomers is to first come to the pre-conference to see if it’s your scene. It’s only about 70 euros which is a lot cheaper than WONCA which is around 300 euros. Everyone is so welcoming that both times that I’ve been, I now don’t even bother checking who’s going first as I always know I’ll have a good time! You can apply for the popular pre-pre-conference clinic visits to get a real taster of primary care in the host nation. They also do a bunch of smaller forums and the next one is in Porto in January (see events).

The Vasco da Gama team

We always have a presence at WONCA Europe and we would love to meet you in person. If you plan to attend WONCA or VDGM, please do let us know in advance. We’ll plug you in with all the social things, workshops and other events going on. Some of them, unfortunately, need prior planning as guest list needs to be arranged so let us know early! Please email thejicsec@gmail.com to be put on our list

Please see the links page for the homepage of VDGM and WONCA. If you have an unanswered question about WONCA or VDGM in general, please email Chairjic@rcgp.org.uk for further details.

Dates for WONCA Krakow 24th-27th May 2018 and VDGM forum Porto is 27th-28th January 2018

If you want to get involved with Erasmus (hurry, because it may be the last funded year in view of Brexit), please email ErasmusPlus@rcgp.org.uk

If you were wondering why there’s a picture of pastries as the featured image, it was the most instagrammable scene from WONCA Prague.

Over the next few blog posts, I hope to run a series of interviews with trainees and F5 GPs exploring their experiences working in other healthcare systems and also experiences working in the Ebola epidemic and  in refugee camps. Watch this space!

4 thoughts on “What is WONCA? And who is Vasco da Gama?

  1. globalgpproject says:

    Thanks Stuart!! Super kind words! There’s so much exciting stuff out there that it’s such a shame if people miss out just because they didn’t know!! I’ve got some really great interviews coming up with personal experiences of AiTs/F5 GP’s so young GP’s can see what’s up their street! Let me know if you want anything covered!


  2. Stuart says:

    This is great! Really exciting to learn that there’s a network of GP trainees/First 5’s with a global outlook. Thanks for making such an effort to let other people know about the opportunities open to us. Cheers!


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