Opportunities and Challenges in Bringing Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery International

I had the opportunity with a major spine industry publication to discuss taking minimally invasive spine surgery to the international community. While much focus of the article’s title appears to discuss the economics and logistics of such a huge endeavor, the human element of the surgeons and their patients, including success opportunities and barriers, is perhaps the biggest part of the story.
United States of America as part of the worldInternational patients rarely see a physician for spine problems until those problems prevent them from walking or significantly inhibit critical body functions.I’ve touched on this in previous articles, but it bears repeating – we Americans are a lucky bunch. Our healthcare system may be imperfect but it is light years ahead of what is available in most other countries, especially developing nations. This is among the reasons I hold the surgeons in other parts of the world in such high esteem. They don’t typically see patients with early-stage, general back-pain.

From a cultural perspective, international patients rarely see a physician for spine problems until those problems prevent them from walking or significantly inhibit critical body functions. The surgeons who treat these patients are attempting to correct some of the most severe spinal deformities that I have ever seen. On top of this is the fact that other nations simply don’t possess the quantity of spine specialists to expertly treat these devastatingly severe cases. So for the spine surgeons who do specialize, they are seeing large volumes of some of the sickest, most in-need patients in their regions, sometimes in their entire countries – a fact that creates both incredible challenge and wonderful opportunity.

When we think about innovations in spine surgery, we often turn toward the plethora of high-quality medical devices that aid us surgeons in the long-term correction of a deformity or treatment of a condition. We often take for granted that most of these devices are made in the U.S.A. and compared to our international colleagues; we have many to choose from. One of the areas we see significant disparity from the rest of the world in terms of spine care is in the availability of the latest and most advanced medical devices. Many countries have incredibly strict import laws, no matter how life-sparing that import might be for one of their citizens. The good news is that global medical device companies are endeavoring to partner locally with countries whose regulations are stringent and seemingly impenetrable. For patients around the world, the fantastic possibility exists that the devices that could mean the difference between crippling deformity and the ability to walk, work and live again are finding their way into the areas of greatest need in remarkable ways today.

Of course, the latest technology and medical devices are meaningless if they’re not in the hands of surgeons who are skilled and properly trained in the ways of minimally invasive spine surgery.  This part of the equation is positively changing too. As the Internet has widened its reach to even the most remote corners of the world, so too have we spine surgeons been able to connect with and develop relationships with our international colleagues. I have visited several countries, including China and India to meet with local hospitals and physicians – instructing the surgeons and their staff in the applications of minimally invasive spine surgery. The results have been remarkable.

The outlook for the future of international minimally invasive spine surgery is bright and hopeful. We’re already seeing global spine surgery meetings growing at a record pace around the world, with many countries offering the same educational courses and resources to their surgeons as we do for ours in America. It is an exciting time to be a minimally invasive spine surgeon in the world and I am honored to be a part of it all.