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How InterSurgeon Connects Surgeons Around The World


Nearly 5 billion people worldwide do not have access to surgical care, according to The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery. And every year, 18.6 million people die as a result of that. That data is what inspired William Harkness, former president of the International Society for Pediatric Neurosurgery, and Dr. James Johnston to create InterSurgeon - a free service that connects surgeons globally to collaborate on clinical treatment, research and education. To talk more about this program, co-founder William Harkness joins me. Welcome.

WILLIAM HARKNESS: Thank you very much. Welcome to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what need does InterSurgeon fill in your view?

HARKNESS: Well, we did a survey in pediatric neurosurgery, both in the States and globally, and one of the themes that people were telling us was that they wanted to take part in global surgical aid, but they just didn't know how to establish the partnerships that they needed to to be able to do their work. So we felt that there was a real need for some platform for people to be able to communicate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what makes this different from a fly-in medical mission, for example, where a doctor from one country performs a surgery in another country, usually a low-income area?

HARKNESS: So I think that we're beginning to learn more and more that fly-in missions or parachuting in surgeons to do work really doesn't improve the situation locally. Very often, the local team aren't given the sufficient education to be able to do the cases themselves. And often if there are complications after the surgery, the local team is then left to sort these out. And so I think that the model that many of us as surgeons now would much rather foster is one where we create longer-lasting partnerships and contribute to education, training and research.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain to me how this works, practically speaking.

HARKNESS: So to start off with, they can just look at the website and see what other people are doing in their specialty and able to communicate with surgeons in many different parts of the world. A lot of people have likened what we're doing to a dating site, if you like. And so what we're really trying to do, though, is to create long-lasting relationships. So I think it may be a few years before we get marriages. But things are really looking positive at the moment. And there is lots of communication through our website.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what are the kinds of things that these doctors are asking, though? I mean, is it sort of for advice on a difficult issue or what?

HARKNESS: Certainly, there are issues just relating to clinical advice. But actually, what usually is happening is that people want to have advice about how to get local facilities up to scratch to provide the best possible care that they can with their resources. And that may mean people coming from a high-income country to work but most importantly to help, to educate in terms of training, develop new skills. So we're really trying to foster local improvement in clinical care.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, I guess what I'm asking, though, is about - there are sort of the have and have nots in the medical world. I mean, you have countries that really struggle to get their populations the care that they need.

HARKNESS: Yeah, that is absolutely right. And I think that as an individual surgeon, what we really must do is to try and help people, as I say, through these collaborative partnerships. Things like TB, malaria and AIDS have attracted a lot of publicity, a lot of research money. But surgery is the forgotten child here. And we're really hoping that, through the work that we're doing, we can enhance the situation and get surgery better noticed in low-income countries and really come to the attention of the politicians and then the administrators that run the health services in these countries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: William Harkness is the co-founder of InterSurgeon. Thank you very much.

HARKNESS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.