In a darkened room inside the Harvard Club of Boston, more than 200 neurosurgeons from across the globe sat together as they listened to their colleague speak. Mohammad Jaweed, MD, described how he had guided surgeons through a five-hour procedure as they removed a brain tumor from a 9-year-old boy. What made that story remarkable was that the surgery happened in a hospital in Afghanistan — while Jaweed watched through a screen in Malaysia.
Using technology to connect medical professionals was one of the main themes at the Cerebrovascular and Skull Base Symposium. Mohammad Ali Aziz-Sultan, MD, MBA, chief of Vascular and Endovascular Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish with this meeting.
“The idea was to have an intimate environment where we could bring together academic thought leaders from the developed world and those from low to middle income countries,” Aziz-Sultan said. “This is a chance to get to know one another, form real bonds and develop a kinship.”
With the help of his Brigham colleagues, Wenya Linda Bi, MD, PhD, Nirav J. Patel, MD, and Ossama Al-Mefty, MD, Aziz-Sultan organized a two-day event featuring local speakers from the Boston area as well as those from countries like Senegal and the Czech Republic. For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, experts came together to discuss their successes and learn from each other’s challenges.
The annual symposium didn’t start off as a global event, but the underlying purpose of community has remained a constant. In its first rendition back in 2015, the meeting began as a way to break local neurosurgeons out of their individual silos and bring them together to discuss patient care. Over time, it grew into a national event that encompassed more than cerebrovascular medicine and featured keynote speeches from leaders in their fields.
For this year’s event, the organizers partnered with the World Federation of Neurosurgical Societies to create an in-person gathering of international experts. It took months of planning from the organizers, including closing out restaurants for brainstorming sessions to elevate the nature of the meeting.
“Our goal was to have everyone invited feel like family, so that all can come together to solve problems that we can’t on our own,” Bi said. “Only once we build the fundamental bridges of trust can one admit one’s vulnerability, actual deficits, and allow us to see the true challenges so that we can collectively get closer to the solutions.”
With that goal in mind, Bi helped structure a curriculum involving short, focused talks intermixed with breaks to allow attendees to discuss their work with each other. Each day opened with introductory remarks that allowed experts to share their motivations and personal connections to the work, and closed with sessions focused on reflection and ignition of ideas. Aziz-Sultan provided insight into his personal and professional journey on the second day, describing how his family was driven out of Afghanistan and how he still gave back to the medical community there.
Patel crafted a section themed “Bridges,” featuring talks about neurosurgeons sharing their knowledge with others who lacked some of their equipment and privileges.
“Sometimes we’re limited by our skill sets or finances, but we all share the same patients no matter what country we’re in,” Patel said. “I have all this equipment here in Boston, but some of the best surgeries I’ve ever done were in a little village in Paraguay. You can really learn from how others have utilized what they have in a different environment.”
One such example was demonstrated by a recorded presentation from Jalal Najjar, MD, a neurosurgeon at the University of Aleppo in northern Syria. Titled “Neurosurgery in war: adaptations of microneurosurgery in Syria,” this talk described how doctors in war-torn regions adapt limited equipment to perform life-saving surgeries.
Other sessions addressed opportunities to develop and improve lower-cost and time-saving technologies. Experts like Jaweed spoke of the use of smart glasses to help remotely guide surgeries. The Brigham’s Alexandra J. Golby, MD, described innovations in open-source software and affordable hardware that could help make neurosurgery more efficient and accessible. Chris Mansi, MD, CEO of Viz.ai, explained how artificial intelligence could be employed to improve detection and diagnosis times, and ensure that “the right doctor gets to the right patient at the right time.”
The organizers hope to continue to improve and expand their efforts to build this community in the coming years.
“Becoming better is our fundamental goal. We are all in it together to make neurosurgical care safer for patients of all backgrounds, resources, and means around the world,” Bi said. “Hopefully future opportunities include philanthropy that empowers people from different countries to join this gathering. We want to make this a bias-free, sustainable effort that promotes open discussions and a growth mindset.”
“This effort represents what I believe Boston and New England medicine has always been committed to — empowering people not only locally, but nationally and internationally,” Aziz-Sultan said.
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