Virtual Conference Brings Spine Specialist Community Together

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't stopped spine specialists from gathering and learning, just sent them to Zoom.

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While the world was just beginning to reel from the COVID-19 epidemic, Ali A. Baaj, MD, saw an opportunity. Unwilling to sit idle while conferences and meetings around the world were canceled, Dr. Baaj, an Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine/New York-Presbyterian Hospital, gathered a handful of colleagues to discuss spine cases and keep their clinical skills up.

Virtual spine conferenceThe Virtual Global Spine Conference brings together spine specialists around the world on weekly Zoom meetings.

“My thought was that a few of us would get on a Zoom meeting and talk about cases,” says Dr. Baaj. “Little did I know that just one month later we would have 1,200 attendees from more than 40 countries.”

Thus was born the Virtual Global Spine Conference.

In Dr. Baaj’s mind, the conference’s exponential growth was fueled by two factors. “The first is the power of dissemination on social media,” says Dr. Baaj. “The second is the thirst for educational programs to continue during the pandemic.” 

Collaboration Is Key

Though the initial idea was Dr. Baaj’s, he’s quick to share credit with his institution and his co-founders.  Knowing that his Chairman, Dr. Phil Stieg, is an advocate for global neurosurgery health and educational initiatives, Dr. Baaj knew that his initiative would be supported departmentally.  The co-founders of this initiative are:

  • John H. Shin, MD, neurosurgeon from Mass General Hospital/Harvard
  • Khoi D. Than, MD, neurosurgeon from Duke
  • Wende N. Gibbs, MD, neuroradiologist from Mayo Clinic
  • Griffin R. Baum, MD, neurosurgeon from Northwell Health
  • Jonathan J. Rasouli, MD, neurosurgery spine fellow from Cleveland Clinic

“This idea was borne out of the COVID-19 epicenter: New York City,” said Dr. Baaj. “There was something special about that in my opinion. It is also a collaboration with outstanding and credible colleagues from terrific institutions. Right off the bat a lot of folks in our field recognized the names and institutions, which gave us instant credibility.”

Why Attend, and How

The Virtual Global Spine Conference holds a weekly case-based conference with an additional “flex-session” as needed.  Topics range from broad discussions on:

  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Endoscopy
  • Spinal oncology

…to more nitty-gritty sessions detailing:

  • Transforaminal vs lateral lumbar interbody fusion
  • Pedicle subtraction osteotomy
  • Craniocervical junction pathology

…and more.

In May, the conference plans to hold a flex session with representatives from major spine organizations about COVID-19 has affected and will continue to affect the spine specialist community. The conference also has hosted and will host preeminent researchers and clinicians such as Dr. Todd Albert, surgeon-in-chief emeritus at Hospital for Special Surgery, and Dr. Ed Benzel, chairman emeritus of the department of neurosurgery at Cleveland Clinic.

The Virtual Global Spine Conference is open to all, from orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons and neuroradiologists, to physical therapists and business leaders. Simply fill out a brief informational form and wait for a Zoom invitation to hit your inbox. Additionally, the conference organizers hope to offer CME credits in the near future.

And the price for all of this? Free.

Grassroots and Top-Down

After Dr. Baaj pitched the idea to his colleagues and they responded enthusiastically, the next step was to pitch the idea to the spine specialist community at large. The best way to do so—especially during the COVID lockdown of 2020—was social media.

“We have been promoting the virtual conference on Twitter and LinkedIn extensively,” said Dr. Baaj. “That’s what generated the initial burst of interest.” The idea for a virtual spine conference may have stopped there, since Dr. Baaj acknowledges that “a very small number of spine specialists are on social media.”

But it didn’t stop. It picked up exponentially. “Students, residents and specialists took the word back to their home program,” explained Dr. Baaj. “I’d estimate that between 30 and 50 percent of registrants heard about the conference from colleagues who are active on social.”

Once the interest was there and the conference began gaining steam, Dr. Baaj wanted to make it “official.” That meant buy-in from the top. “When I realized that this was going to expand so rapidly, I was very fortunate to get logistics support of my chairman, Dr. Phil Stieg, and his special projects director Roseann Henry,” said Dr. Baaj. “It was basically a six-person, six-university-system collaboration that was put together and supported by my home institution. That was key to be able to expand so rapidly.”

Early Challenges

As of late April, the conference regularly sees 200 to 300 attendees per session. A huge advantage to a virtual conference for both attendees and organizers is that there’s no length limit, no venue to worry about, no travel arrangements to make. Logistically, it’s a much lighter lift than putting together an in-person conference.

That’s not to say there were no growing pains.

“We prepared for 200 people for our first session and we got Zoombombed,” said Dr. Baaj, referring to the term coined in the COVID-19 epidemic that means a deliberate and malicious interruption to a Zoom meeting. “Talk about an obstacle right off the bat. But we were able to salvage that meeting and we haven’t had a glitch since then.”

As the Virtual Global Spine Conference faculty—and indeed, much of the rest of the world—get more familiar with the latest videoconferencing technology, technological snags become a thing of the past. Dr. Baaj says presenters log in early and do a dry run of their talk to iron out any technical glitches.

What’s Next?

Dr. Baaj and his colleagues have no intention of shutting down the Virtual Global Spine Conference after the pandemic lockdown is over and things have gone back to (more or less) normal. There are too many advantages.

“This conference gives us the ability to provide basically anyone direct access to thought leaders from their office or living room,” said Dr. Baaj. “The ability to interact one-on-one and ask questions has been key. I think these types of initiatives have broken down some barriers that have historically made it difficult to join conferences.”  

Check out the Virtual Global Spine Conference’s Twitter feed, and sign up for invites on the website.

Updated on: 05/04/20
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Telemedicine for Spine Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Ali A. Baaj, MD

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