Neurosurgical Training and Global Health Education: Systematic Review of Challenges and Benefits of In-Country Programs in the Care of Neural Tube Defects

Objective: The recognition that neurosurgeons harbor great potential to advocate for the care of individuals with neural tube defects (NTDs) globally has sounded as a clear call to action; however, neurosurgical care and training in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) present unique challenges that must be considered. The objective of this study was to systematically review publications that describe the challenges and benefits of participating in neurosurgery-related training programs in LMICs in the service of individuals with NTDs.

Methods: Using MEDLINE (PubMed), the authors conducted a systematic review of English- and Spanish-language articles published from 1974 to 2019 that describe the experiences of in-country neurosurgery-related training programs in LMICs. The inclusion criteria were as follows-1) population/exposure: US residents, US neurosurgeons, and local in-country medical staff participating in neurosurgical training programs aimed at improving healthcare for individuals with NTDs; 2) comparison: qualitative studies; and 3) outcome: description of the challenges and benefits of neurosurgical training programs. Articles meeting these criteria were assessed within a global health education conceptual framework.

Results: Nine articles met the inclusion criteria, with the majority of the in-country neurosurgical training programs being seen in subregions of Africa (8/9 [89%]) and one in South/Central America. US-based residents and neurosurgeons who participated in global health neurosurgical training had increased exposure to rare diseases not common in the US, were given the opportunity to work with a collaborative team to educate local healthcare professionals, and had increased exposure to neurosurgical procedures involved in treating NTDs. US neurosurgeons agreed that participating in international training improved their own clinical practices but also recognized that identifying international partners, travel expenses, and interference with their current practice are major barriers to participating in global health education. In contrast, the local medical personnel learned surgical techniques from visiting neurosurgeons, had increased exposure to intraoperative decision-making, and were given guidance to improve postoperative care. The most significant challenges identified were difficulties in local long-term retention of trained fellows and staff, deficient infrastructure, and lower compensation offered for pediatric neurosurgery in comparison to adult care.

Conclusions: The challenges and benefits of international neurosurgical training programs need to be considered to effectively promote the development of neurosurgical care for individuals with NTDs in LMICs. In this global health paradigm, future work needs to investigate further the in-country professionals’ perspective, as well as the related outcomes.