A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of participating in the KCL International Neurosurgical Conference 2018. Those two days packed with intense lectures and workshops left me ridiculously exhausted, on a verge of existential crisis, questioning all my career choices as a scientist and also very, very satisfied. But let’s start at the beginning. Early on a cloudy Saturday morning, instead of staying in bed like normal people do, Alice and I rolled into the Weston Education Centre at Denmark Hill Campus. The place was already buzzing and the committee of KCL Neurosurgery Society was both excited and stressed out, as one would be, hosting such a big event. After picking up our conference passes, we were directed to the lecture theatre where we were about to spend the next two days. The conference kicked off with a brief welcome from the Society presidents and a fascinating lecture from Ms. Eleni Maratos. This talk set up the prevailing theme for the conference: Ms. Maratos discussed advances in spine surgery, but was also able to share the secret of being a good neurosurgeon. She made it sound so simple: “To be a good neurosurgeon, you need to be a good doctor. Almost every speaker that day would remind us of her words, stressing in their own way how important those qualities were. “You have to be a neurologist with a knife”, “Be a good doctor, look after your patients, look after your family”, “You can’t forget about the patients in the pursue for innovation”. All these mantras revolved around a prominent theme, and it seemed as though perhaps such a knowledge and patient-centered approach may still be missing from general practice. It’s hard to describe every single lecture we attended that day, and they were all given by specialists in the field from all over the world. The one speech that made me both very excited and very scared was given by Dr. William Gormley on how technology will change neurosurgery and possibly the entire medical industry. In the Computational Neuroscience Outcomes Center at Harvard (CNOC), which Dr. Gormley co-developed, they are focusing on creating and application of new knowledge. Their research is patient centred and innovation oriented. Dr. Gormley explained the concept of Big Data and how this might be used to monitor and predict patients behaviour, needs and prognosis. And by Big Data he meant really big, almost inconceivable quantities of information on a worldwide scale. Using this data together with the newest technology, doctors and scientists would not only be able to check up on their patients after them leaving the hospital but also create models of many diseases and devise personalized therapies. Needles to say, the prospect of doctors monitoring our every move made me, and the audience, a little anxious. However, Dr. Gormley was well aware of these issues, perhaps more than anyone else. That’s exactly why, he said, we need to be there and we need to make sure this data is being used properly, and stays well-protected. CONC is an exciting project with high potential to dramatically change patient care around the world dramatically and it will be fascinating to witness. After all, to quote Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Another prevailing theme of the Conference was support. After every talk, majority of the questions from the audience were asked by… other speakers. It was an absolute delight to listen to those friendly and rather fascinating conversations, as though between friends. Especially professors who were well aware that not so long ago, being a surgeon was not as a respected profession as it is now. Some of them had to face ostracism and eye-rolling from their own colleagues back in the days when they were trying to develop revolutionary techniques that are being used widely today. It was heartwarming and very uplifting to see those professionals support their colleagues and give advice to those who are the future of neurosurgery. Second day of the conference was a whole different level of intense. They eased us in with oral presentations and award ceremony. The presidents of the Society even managed to sneak in a surprise award for their Conference Lead, Malika: an emotional thank-you gift for the great job she did organising the entire event. After the ceremony we were sent off to workshops. These were high quality, neurosurgical skills workshops led by professionals; in other words, something I knew absolutely nothing about. Fortunately, all of the instructors were extremely friendly and patient and even a complete rookie like myself had a great time. And there was plenty to choose from. Starting with craniotomy workshop, microsurgical skills, spinal fracture management, introduction to endoscopy and many many more. Every session was unique and a very hands-on experience. We were divided into smaller groups so that everyone could fully participate in the workshops. At first I was slightly intimidated, knowing that most of the fellow attendees were medical students or freshly graduated doctors. Soon enough however, I realised we were all new to these activities and that everyone was enjoying the workshops as much as I was. Needless to say, I learned a lot, had heaps of fun and even started wondering if a scientific path is really the right choice for me. What I took away from the conference continued to haunt me for a few weeks that followed. From the neuroscientists’ perspective, it was very surprising to see all the innovations in the neurosurgical field – those that were being discussed were new to me, while those I believed to be the future of the practice weren’t even mentioned. After discussing my reservations with other attendees, I finally realised that all those revolutionary techniques I knew about were still in development, and would be introduced into the medical practice at least in ten years time. In scientific terms, ten years is a blink of an eye, however from a medics’ perspective it is already ten years too late. While the revolutionary innovation is needed and important, it could take years before it can be applied to general practice. Hence, while working on that, we should contribute equally to finding solutions to more pressing problems. After all, we are all playing for the same team, with one ultimate goal – making people’s lives better.
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