Having partnered over the years with neurosurgeons in Vietnam and Ghana, James Johnston, Jr., M.D., a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), knew many in his field who craved this type of global collaboration but didn’t know where to start. That’s why he co-founded an interactive website designed to bring specialists and organizations together to improve the care of surgical patients worldwide.
Known as InterSurgeon (https://intersurgeon.org), the effort is the joint vision of Johnston and British pediatric neurosurgeon William Harkness, M.D., who focused on the stark fact that 80% of the world’s population lacks access to safe, timely and affordable surgical care. The pair, with support from multiple international organizations and Dean Vickers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), raised funds to build InterSurgeon to help fill this void. It matches surgeons from disparate locations to not only collaborate, but form a supportive global community of like-minded professionals.
Initially launched with pediatric neurosurgeons in mind, InterSurgeon now also includes members from many other surgical specialties. The free service empowers surgeons, anesthesiologists, allied health professionals and equipment providers to partner on training, education and clinical care as well as share equipment and other resources.
“We’ve tried to create a stand-alone nexus for all players in global surgery to be able to join with others to better collaborate,” said Johnston, also an associate professor of pediatric neurosurgery at UAB.
“The World Health Organization passed a resolution in 2016 that put new emphasis on global surgery training as a major priority for global health,” he said. “We focus so much on infectious diseases, but what’s ended up happening is that the annual morbidity and mortality from surgery worldwide dwarfs all of that. It’s stunning.”
Key partnerships between InterSurgeon and other organizations over the past several years have driven opportunities for collaboration as well as access to surgical education with specialized technology. In addition to the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), partners include the G4 Alliance, which advocates for increased access to safe surgical care; and Ohana One, which has sent “smart glasses” loaded with augmented reality software from Birmingham-based HelpLightning to various sites around the world. This enabled mentor surgeons in developed healthcare systems to virtually interact in real time with mentees performing surgery for training purposes.
With procedural competence integral to the specialty, surgery requires “a certain amount of infrastructure, and a lot of that has lagged worldwide,” Johnston noted. “But even in places with equipment, the quality of surgical training is not always as good as it could be.”
With more than 600 members in 95 countries and growing, InterSurgeon aims to “shore up” that gap.
“It’s a very difficult problem, and no one thing will solve it,” Johnston said. “But in surgery, it’s very important to connect experts and institutions with learners to bring them up to speed and improve the quality of the surgery they’re doing.”