Stefanie Duchac is the Head of Education at the European Society for Swallowing Disorders (ESSD), where she leverages her nearly two decades of experience to enhance the quality of life for individuals with swallowing disorders. Initially starting her career as a clinician, Stefanie now also holds a professorship in speech and language therapy in Germany. She is deeply committed to education, networking, and supporting healthcare professionals, having been an active member of several healthcare organizations both nationally and internationally. Stefanie proudly serves as a board member of ESSD, leading its educational activities.

Stefanie Duchac
Head of Education, European Society for Swallowing Disorders (ESSD)

Stefanie’s Story: Discovering My Passion for Associations

To me, international associations are key to development and progress within a profession but also between professions. During my professional career, I have repeatedly faced a wide variety of challenges. These include patients with complex illnesses, structural barriers, as well as the impression of not knowing enough to fulfill the demands placed on my own therapeutic skills. Great encounters with inspiring colleagues and mentors from different countries, whom I mostly met in meetings of international associations, have helped me greatly with these challenges, have further intensified my passion for the topic and allowed me to realize the value of networking and sharing experiences in an organized way.

I strongly encourage everyone to take an active role in an interprofessional association because it provides new perspectives and adds many values and insights to professional as well as personal growth.

Stefanie’s Approach: How to #InspireInclusion through Our Work and Actions

As the Integration Officer at my university, I am deeply committed to promoting inclusion in the association I serve. One approach I employ to inspire inclusion in at ESSD is to actively seek and value diverse perspectives. I make it a point to ensure that the voices of various professional groups are heard and respected within our association. This includes actively involving members from different backgrounds, disciplines, and experiences in the decision-making processes, discussions, and projects.

Secondly, I encourage integrating the perspectives of patients into our activities. By actively engaging with patients and incorporating their insights, needs, and experiences into our initiatives, we can ensure that our work remains relevant, impactful, and inclusive.

Third, I promote a culture of openness, respect, and empathy in our association. This involves creating safe spaces for dialogue, actively listening to each other, and fostering a sense of belonging among ESSD and board members.

Stefanie’s Perspective: On the Importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Associations

I am firmly convinced that DEI is the cornerstone of a growing association as these principles ensure respectful and open cooperation and communication. Only through this openness and the resulting trust can innovative ideas be born, and sustainable and long-lasting initiatives be implemented.

Diversity brings a variety of perspectives, experiences, and ideas to the table. In the context of dysphagia, individuals from different backgrounds, professions, and personal experiences can offer unique insights into the challenges faced by individuals with swallowing disorders. This diversity of thought is invaluable for generating innovative solutions and approaches for improving the diagnosis, treatment, and support of patients.

Equity ensures that everyone within an association has equal access to opportunities, resources, and support. By creating a level playing field, equity allows individuals from underrepresented groups to fully participate and contribute their talents and perspectives. This not only fosters a sense of belonging and inclusion but also maximizes the potential for growth and advancement within the association.

Inclusion is key to building a strong and cohesive community within an association. When all members feel valued, respected, and included, they are more likely to collaborate effectively, share knowledge and best practices, and support one another in achieving their common goals. This sense of unity and solidarity strengthens the association as a whole and enables it to better serve its members and the broader dysphagia community.

Therefore, diversity, equity, and inclusion are not just moral imperatives but should be seen as strategic priorities for associations. By embracing these principles, an association can unlock the full potential of its members, drive innovation and growth, and ultimately make a meaningful impact on the lives of those affected by swallowing disorders.

Stefanie’s Initiatives: Actions and Inspirations for Fellow Association Leaders

One important aspect of managing swallowing disorders, besides gaining further knowledge through research, is to overcome possible barriers in terms of training and professional development. This includes translating knowledge into clinical practice and overcoming structural challenges. To advance this, I initiated a dysphagia mentorship program that brings inexperienced members of the healthcare sector together with experienced experts from the clinical or research field and allows them to learn from each other in a structured way over a period of 18 months. The program started in Germany in 2018 and was expanded to ESSD for international support and exchange.

Another project I initiated for the ESSD is a virtual brunch, held quarterly and following an annual motto. For 2024, it is « Culinary Connections – a Virtual Brunch on Varied Perspectives of Nutrition and Swallowing ». During this event, there is a short input by guest speakers and a host-led Q&A, followed by networking with participant engagement.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the ESSD and the network of professionals it has fostered. For example, as a result of this collaboration, I was able to conduct a course on dysphagia last year in Uzbekistan, which attracted participants from eight Central Asian countries. All these individuals from different backgrounds and diverse knowledge bases worked together to establish standardized dysphagia management practices, showcasing the power of interprofessional cooperation and diverse expertise in creating a dynamic and inspiring learning environment. This impressed me very much.