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  • Linke Potgieter

ORAHS in Bergamo

The European Working Group on Operational Research Applied to Health Services hosted their yearly conference in Bergamo, Italy, 17-22 July 2022. I've never been to Bergamo, and after 3 years of no travelling, I couldn't resist the opportunity to visit Italy. This time I wasn't travelling on my own, but had the best companions I could ask for - Cobus, Hannu and Lian. Given the heat wave in Europe, and the age of two-thirds of my companions, we were sure in for lots of ice cream, play parks, and swimming. What we didn't realise beforehand, was that Bergamo was one of Italy's cities that was hit the hardest by the Covid pandemic. The trauma of the past two years still felt almost tangible when walking through the narrow streets, but with the realisation of a new "day" dawning on everyone's faces.

The venue of the conference was at the Sant'Agostino historical building of the University of Bergamo, a former church of the Augustinian monastic complex. Restoration of the buildings started in 2006, and they've sure done a great job at it! Beautiful site. The Great Hall, in which the plenary talks and one of the streams were hosted (in which I presented my research), has a capacity of 600 people, and I just couldn't help myself taking a 100 pictures of the frescoed wall surfaces.

The main theme of the conference was ORAHS in the red zone, with a focus on the organisation and reaction of health systems when confronted with emergency situations like the Covid pandemic. With the conference hosted in Bergamo, one of the hardest hit cities in Italy, this had a very special meaning. Several members of the Italian OR scientific community did their best to help the Italian national health system in its battle against the Covid pandemic. The plenary talk by Giuseppe Remuzzi reminded us of the founding principles of a national health services and conviction that healthcare is a right, not a service to be left to the dynamics of the free market (where health business is no different from any other business and can end up responding to the needs of the shareholders instead of the needs of the patients). It was a call to do everything we can to preserve healthcare services for everyone, defend it, correct it where necessary, improving it still further, but without abandoning its first principles. Pier Giorgio Villani reminded us of the doctor's point of view ("we are not robots to be forced into a model", "the machine can't solve medical problems better than myself", "you cannot replace experience and contextual interpretation with a model") in an era of big data and information technology, and that the world of medicine and mathematics will have to find a meeting point in the near future. Perhaps the meeting point is not to have a replacement focus where models prescribe solutions to medical problems, but rather a decision support focus by providing instruments for doctors to seek solutions. The final plenary talk by Ger Koole compared planning in customer services and healthcare services, in which he highlighted similarities and differences, and lessons we can learn from call centre planning to help make healthcare services more efficient and patient oriented.

The scientific sessions covered a range of topics within a healthcare context such as: prevention and triage, capacity planning, workforce planning, in-plan care, emergency management systems, healthcare logistics: transport, inventory, routing, appointment scheduling, data and computing in healthcare context, ambulance management, operating room scheduling, humanitarian logistics, cancer therapy and treatment optimisation. I was scheduled in the logistics session, with my talk on the paper by Dean Matter and myself. It was sure a treat and highlight to present my work to the most important members of the audience, Hannu and Lian, who didn't understand a word of it, but were thrilled to see me on their way to the play park.

The ORAHS conference is small, similar in size to our local ORSSA conference, and the opportunities to meet and connect with fellow researchers are abundant. I thought with all the networking opportunities missed during the pandemic, that this would be a good place to start connecting again, and I wasn't disappointed. The conference organisers went out of their way to create opportunities for networking, treated us with a variety from the Italian cuisine, beautiful venues such as the Villa Maliana, conference boat trip at Lake Como, and just being incredibly hospitable and accommodating.

Will I recommend going to the ORAHS conferences? Yes, definitely, if you are interested in Healthcare Operations Research.

Will I visit Bergamo again? Perhaps. Definitely the surrounding region. There are so much to see and to do!

Will I visit Italy again? I hope so!

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