How the COVID-19 pandemic sparked collaboration in the transplant community

How the COVID-19 pandemic sparked collaboration in the transplant community

A Q&A with American Society of Transplantation immediate-past president Emily Blumberg, M.D.

“I would have never foreseen the incredible positive force that such a collaboration could generate. I think it all made us feel we were doing something important for the community.”

Emily Blumberg, M.D., immediate-past American Society of Transplantation president

As COVID-19 cases began increasing globally, conversations among health care providers about the pandemic’s potential impact on transplant started to emerge. “This sense of the need to educate our communities—both individually and potentially as a group—came up, and we started sending around emails amongst ourselves,” said transplant infectious disease specialist Emily Blumberg, M.D., who recently served as president of the American Society of Transplantation.

Within a few days, organ donation and transplant professionals from around the world had assembled to collaborate on a webinar series sharing real-world, global experiences for the organ donation and transplant community.

“COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity for us to convene not only transplant associations in the United States, but across the world,” said former UNOS Board of Directors president Stuart Sweet, M.D., Ph.D., who recently concluded his term as president of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation. “It was really taking advantage of a challenging opportunity to convene our community in a way that we’d never done before.”

Registration for the first live, collaborative webinar “COVID-19: Organ Donation and Transplant Town Hall,” launched on March 23 and the 1,000 available seats filled within a few hours. Collaboration continued over the following weeks, with three additional webinars covering topics ranging from protecting the workforce to conversations around testing. Collectively, the webinar recordings have been viewed more than 25,000 times.

In a recent interview, Blumberg talked about how the organ donation and transplantation community united amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to launch the webinar series.

How did the idea for the collaborative COVID webinars come to be?

I’ve been thinking back about how this started and honestly, I think there were a lot of side conversations that happened among leadership of these different organizations. But somehow, organically, this sense of the need to educate our communities—both individually and as a group—came up, and we started sending around emails amongst ourselves. All of a sudden we had a group of committed individuals who thought that we should try to share information in real time. There was tremendous brainstorming about speakers at every juncture and how to make it international. I think people were just really interested in helping to meet the challenge of COVID with information to the best of our ability in real time.

What was the goal?

The first goal was to disseminate current information from people who were already experiencing the management of transplant patients with COVID-19. We wanted to have people who could give us real world experiences and who would have a perspective to help pave a way for everybody else to start thinking about it. One of the incredible things about the webinar was having the international components provided by several of the societies. Especially with everything that has gone on in Italy, ahead of us, in terms of experience. We could actually engage people who knew a little bit more about what they were seeing and how they were handling it and get some real-time, practical information. I think this is something that would never have been doable if we had tried to stay local.

How did everything come together?

On our first call, we were brainstorming about different topics that people were interested in hearing about and that we thought would be helpful, and where different members of the societies were experience-wise. We made an enormous list of these. Then we pared the list down and tried to make it into a cohesive whole. We really benefited a lot from UNOS their willingness to use their platform. Because UNOS had the technology already set up, that became an immediate weight off everybody’s shoulders about how we were going to do this. It also took out of any individual society’s purview, which I think helps the collaboration and made it easier. We asked everyone to come in with three really relevant slides and five minutes of critical information. It really focused the individuals and allowed us to bring many more viewpoints.

What was the experience like working with so many societies?

I don’t think anybody, at any point, saw this as owned by any individual society. I think we all appreciated what all the different societies had to contribute and their commitment to it. It’s an extraordinary group effort. Personally, I knew some of the people involved in advance of the webinars, but there were people I’ve met through this experience who it’s been such a pleasure to collaborate with. I think that could be said for all of us.

What surprised you most about the collaboration?

I’ve been impressed by how engaged people have stayed throughout the entire process. It wasn’t like the first one was done and everybody checked out. We realized people were really interested and it made people engaged in doing another one. When we did the second one and the extra module for it, we said, “Wow, people are still interested.”

How do you think this collaboration has helped the transplant community as they navigate COVID-19?

We’re all benefiting from learning from everybody’s experience for sure. I mean, there have been some difficult times for all of us. Having this information to fall back on has been really beneficial. Just in our day-to-day jobs in taking care of patients, setting up things in our various transplant hospitals and trying to learn from people’s experience so you’re not starting at the bottom. You’re actually starting with the foundation that you’ve gained from interfacing with people throughout the world.

What do you hope the community has gained from these events?

I think we’ve gotten to know one another a little better and feel more globally joined as a community, in a way that maybe we didn’t feel so much before. The societies have interacted one-on-one with other societies on certain initiatives, but this experience let us know that people are interested in a bigger world. Not that the societies individually are going away, but that they’re finding new ways to collaborate and we’re all learning from one another.

What’s your hope for the future?

I’ve talked individually with some of the other leaders of other societies and I think we would like to try to continue some level of international education. I hope that we’re going to be able to talk in the next week or two to figure out what our next steps are going to be. I think it would be nice to expand this tent to include more people.

This was one of the most exciting things that I’ve gotten to participate in during this past year. I would have never foreseen the incredible positive force that such a collaboration could generate. I think it all made us feel we were doing something important for the community. We all had a common goal and a common interest and it was really a pleasure.

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