Dr. Rafi Avitsian

Virtual Medical Conference Will Connect Armenia’s Health Professionals to the World’s Leading Experts in Digestive Disease


By Christopher H. Zakian

NEW YORK — An online medical conference scheduled for September will gather some of the world’s leading authorities on digestive diseases to network and share their expertise with medical professionals in Armenia and Artsakh.

The International Digestive Disease Conference is scheduled to convene on September 11-12, 2021, as a “virtual” gathering. It will honor the memory of the late Dr. Raffy Hovanessian (1938-2020): a distinguished gastroenterologist and heroic benefactor of countless Armenian causes.

Chairing the conference is world-renowned gastroenterologist Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian, of Uruguay. Keynote speaker Dr. John Bilezikian (Columbia University, US) will lead a roster of 54 speakers representing 23 countries — each an authority on an aspect of digestive diseases and care. Lectures will be presented in English, with simultaneous Armenian translation.

The conference organized by the International Center for Professional Development (ICPD) is being made possible by the generous sponsorship of the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR). The two have collaborated in the past, as well, in pursuit of a common goal of making world-class resources available to physicians, nurses, and other healthcare providers in Armenia and Artsakh.

Advancing knowledge and improving healthcare practice in Armenia and Artsakh are the key motivations behind all of ICPD’s efforts. Via conferences, workshops, and simulations — both live and online — the center brings the latest advances in healthcare to the medical specialists, health practitioners, and biomedical technicians of Armenia, Artsakh, and beyond.

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The ICPD was conceived by three physicians of Armenian descent — Drs. Rafi Avitsian, Ara Babloyan, and Gevorg Yaghjyan — who saw a critical need to expand the reach of quality medical educational programs in Armenia. The trio was later joined by Dr. Ara Nazarian to form the ICPD board of directors.

“We were all impressed by the many Armenian medical professionals across the globe who are distinguished in their respective fields, and who give lectures in foreign countries,” recalled Avitsian, lead anesthesiologist at Cleveland Clinic in the U.S., and founding president of the ICPD. “It was already an existing reality, and our thought was to focus that reality for the benefit of Armenia.”

Accordingly, ICPD was established as a non-profit organization providing world-class medical education conferences. That mission was warmly welcomed by Armenia’s Ministry of Health, its medical specialty societies, and its National Institute of Health.

In addition to their educational functions, ICPD’s gatherings are pathways for credentialing Armenia’s healthcare professionals.

“Physicians in Armenia are mandated by the state to receive continuous training by international authorities,” Avitsian explained. “As you can imagine, this can be expensive and time-consuming for our colleagues in the homeland, who would ordinarily have to take time off from work, travel abroad, and pay for lodging to fulfill the mandate to receive state-of-the-art education beyond the borders of Armenia. But through ICPD’s programs, a healthcare worker in Armenia can log onto the Internet, participate in one of our workshops, learn from top international authorities, and receive qualifying credits — all without leaving their homeland.”

The September 2021 online conference will offer two full days of such lectures, by some of the world’s leading experts on digestive diseases. While some of the experts have Armenian backgrounds, the roster of lecturers is diverse and inclusive. “Our objective is to build professional connections, create an international network of doctors — all with an interest in, and focus on, Armenia and Artsakh,” said Avitsian.

Past conference themes revolved around neurology, pain management, the COVID pandemic, and treating post-conflict trauma. All of these were held as live events with an online broadcast where participants could “virtually” interact with lecturers and ask questions. Dr. Avitsian said the theme of the upcoming online conference, digestive diseases, was chosen in part as a tribute to the late Dr. Raffy Hovanessian (whose specialty was gastroenterology), but also as a response to the great need for advances in this specialty in Armenia and Artsakh.

Contributing to a Healthier Future

That need is an urgent concern for Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian.

“At present, Armenia is facing many barriers in the prevention and early detection of digestive diseases,” Tchekmedyian said. “We hope that we can contribute to bringing down these barriers, and help build a network aimed at building a stronger system in the field of gastroenterology.”

Realizing those goals, he said, will require improvements in education, training, and equipment for medical workers, and better access for the general population.

Tchekmedyian added that when he explains these realities to his colleagues in the field of gastroenterology, they immediately want to know how they can help.

Dr. Asadur Jorge Tchekmedyian

“When the topic of international medical outreach comes up, people naturally think of Africa, Asia, or South America. But almost no one thinks of Armenia! Part of our aim with this conference is to bring exposure to our homeland on an international stage; to bring together the world’s leading physicians — of all national backgrounds — and direct their attention to the need in Armenia and Artsakh, and the opportunity to do good there.”

Echoing the feeling of many Armenians in various fields of endeavor, Dr. Tchekmedyian feels a responsibility to advocate for his homeland in his professional circles. “I am always proud to talk about our roots with my colleagues, and I feel enthusiastic when they become familiar with our ancestry and culture.”

“Through such familiarity, people become eager to contribute to a better, healthier future for Armenia’s people,” he said.

It’s a responsibility shared by his ICPD colleagues. “Everyone involved in the conference, and in the ICPD, seeks to contribute to Armenia’s and Artsakh’s welfare,” said Avitsian. “They see a need, and want to help by sharing the special expertise they have. That same generous feeling unites these doctors from across the world, and across all backgrounds.”

He adds: “In Dr. Tchekmedyian, we have one of the world’s foremost specialists in the field of gastroenterology, who has attracted the participation of fellow experts practicing at the highest level. Considering the great need in Armenia for advancement in this field, and especially in light of last year’s conflict, the September conference could hardly be more timely.”

A Personal Dimension

The ICPD is organizing the conference in concert with the Fund for Armenian Relief: the humanitarian outreach and development arm of the New York-Based Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America. FAR has taken on the major sponsorship role, through its “Dr. Raffy Hovanessian Education Fund” and “Dr. Edgar Housepian Medical Education Fund.” Several other groups are helping to sponsor the event.

Dr. Raffy Hovanessian

FAR has a long history of working to develop Armenia’s medical establishment. “The Fund for Armenian Relief began as a response to another crisis in Armenia: the earthquake of 1988, more than 30 years ago. Since Day One of that effort, continuing medical education has been an urgent priority for FAR,” explained Garnik Nanagoulian, FAR’s Executive Director. “The late Dr. Edgar Housepian, one of FAR’s founders, was a pioneer in bringing medical expertise from the West into Armenia — and creating international exchanges for Armenia’s medical professionals.”

“The Internet Age has greatly enlarged the opportunities for high-level medical training and development,” he said. “The upcoming ICPD conference is one of the most cost-effective ways to bring together a large number of Armenia’s doctors, and expose them to up-to-the-minute learning about digestive diseases.”

Nanagoulian added: “Dr. Avitsian and Dr. Tchekmedyian are like magnets, attracting the most talented people in the field to the conference, purely out of respect for their reputations.”

FAR’s joint sponsorship of the conference has a “personal” dimension, as well, through its connection to a longtime hero of the Fund for Armenian Relief.

“Dr. Raffy Hovanessian was a great figure in FAR’s history,” Nanagoulian said. “With his wife, Shoghag, he supported FAR at every level — not only in our medical programs but also in the arts and education. The memorial his family set up with FAR, the ‘Dr. Raffy Hovanessian Educational Fund,’ is yet another part of his legacy to advance Armenia and Artsakh.”

Honoring a personal friendship with a departed colleague is a strong motivation for all involved, reflected Dr. Avitsian. “The conference is a good cause in and of itself,” he said. “But it’s also a fitting way to remember our dear colleague Raffy: his career, his humanitarian spirit, and his passion for our homeland. Raffy Hovanessian’s whole life was devoted to one good cause after another, and we will never forget him.”

Readers can learn more about the ICPD’s mission — which includes organizing medical educational events, promoting continuous professional development among Armenia’s and Artsakh’s medical professionals, and curating an online medical education library — by accessing the official website of the International Center for Professional Development (ICPD.am) and its Facebook page (@ICPDarm).

The first “Dr. Raffy Hovanessian International Virtual Conference on Digestive Disease” will convene on Saturday and Sunday, September 11-12, beginning at 16:00 hours (Yerevan time), 8:00 (New York), and 13:00 (London). Prospective participants can find conference details, a full list of speakers and topics, and links to register at ICPD.am.


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