Newswise — “Think globally, act locally” is a popular global health idea that encourages people to consider the health of the entire planet while taking actions in their own cities and communities. And it’s an idea that inspired a group of students in the Perelman School of Medicine to join with other medical schools in Philadelphia and start a group dedicated to the growing field of global surgery.

The Penn Global Surgery Group was launched in 2015 by a group of PSOM students, in partnership with Penn faculty including founding advisor, Dave Spiegel, MD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine at University of Pennsylvania and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who were passionate about exchanging knowledge, ideas, opportunities, and strategies to make surgical procedures more accessible and affordable around the world.

Until recently, surgery has been largely omitted from global health efforts, taking a back seat to infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. But as progress is made to treat and prevent these diseases, it has become clear that there is a significant need to focus on treating people in resource-limited settings who are in need of surgical care. And this need touches almost every aspect of health care from cancer to obstetrics to orthopedics. In fact, according to the Lancet Commission on Global Surgery, more than 18 million people die each year from lack of surgical care.

While it can often be hard to define the burden of surgical disease, for example some conditions – such as a broken limb from a car accident – might not be considered surgical here in the United States, but can become serious surgical cases or even lead to death if left untreated. But others, such as mothers and babies who die during childbirth because they aren’t able to access cesarean section procedures to people suffering from late-stage cancers are more clear – there is a need to fold surgery into the larger global health agenda. 

“The need for improved access to high-quality, timely surgical care in low and middle income countries is so severe that changing the systems in these countries is the only way to minimize the gap between the demand and supply of surgical services,” said Neil Sheth, MD, chief of Orthopaedic Surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital, and a faculty advisor for the program.

With this gap in care in mind, PSOM students came together to create a central platform that facilitates the exchange of knowledge, ideas, opportunities, and strategies within an interdisciplinary community of students, faculty, and professionals in the fields of global surgery.

“I started the group my first year of medical school because I was interested in both surgery and global health,” said Rachel Johnson, a fourth-year medical student and the group’s co-founder. “After some investigation, I discovered the field of global surgery. I was horrified to learn that people in resource limited settings were dying from easily treatable surgical diseases such as appendicitis. Though individuals throughout the Penn community were pursuing individual projects within the field, there did not seem to be a central hub where people could learn about and share solutions for bringing surgical care to these resource-limited regions. So we created it!”

When Johnson first started the group, she and co-founder Rosaline Zhang thought it would mainly be an interest group for medical students, with a few lunch lectures and group discussions. But word of the program spread quickly throughout Penn and eventually to students and residents at other medical schools in Philadelphia.

“The group has evolved rapidly over the last few years – not only have we been able to recruit many of Penn’s own faculty to the group, but we have also been successful in engaging faculty and students from other medical schools in the area. There are so many people interested in working in this growing subset of global health and we are thrilled our organization has been able to help bring them together,” said Berryhill McCarty, a second-year med student and outgoing president of the group.

Today, the Penn Global Surgery Group focuses on several key areas to help drive engagement. From lunch and learns and guest lectures focused on the urgent need to bridge the surgery gap in global health to sending out regular newsletters to recruiting research fellows, the group continues to look for creative ways to build its base of involved students.

In partnership with Penn’s Center for Global Health, the group also hosts an annual Global Surgery Symposium each fall here in Philadelphia. For the past three years, the symposium has educated trainees about global surgery and developing innovative solutions to make surgery more accessible in resource-limited settings. The next symposium will take place on Nov. 17, 2018 and will focus on "High Resource Surgeons in Low Resource Settings."

The group is also enhancing its philanthropy efforts here and abroad by establishing partnerships with organizations that perform global surgery work, such as the Syrian American Medical Society, to raise both awareness and funding for those organizations. Johnson and McCarty hope the group will continue building partnerships to allow more students, residents, and faculty to help those in under-resourced areas and to expand the impact of the program. 

“As we are working to establish these partnerships, we are focused on ensuring that there will be bi-directional benefits,” Johnson said. “We would learn so much from the opportunity to observe and participate in global surgery work, and want to be sure that our presence truly enhances the organizations with whom we partner.”

While these potential partnerships are still in progress, the group continues to move forward with its efforts make surgery a bigger part of global health efforts in general.   

“We want to make meaningful connections around the world. It is our hope that these connections will help make surgery an essential pillar of global health efforts in resource limited settings,” McCarty said.