NASS: Updates, Pivots, Lessons Learned

2021 NASS president Eeric Truumees on advocacy, diversity, and navigating one challenging year

Peer Reviewed
We caught up with Eeric Truumees, MD, current president of the North American Spine Society (NASS) and SpineUniverse Editorial Board member. Dr. Truumees lays out progress on his priorities for his tenure, talks about navigating the shifting landscape of COVID meeting guidelines, describes advocacy in a new presidential administration, and rates his performance so far.

Logo for North American Spine SocietyCOVID presented unique challenges to Dr. Truumees and NASS in 2021.

SpineUniverse: What would you say were your top priorities when you took office and how much progress have you made? Have you had to put anything on the backburner in favor of emerging priorities?

Eeric Truumees: When I took over from Dr. Bill Sullivan in October, 2020, we were well into the COVID pandemic. With that in mind, I knew that some of our long-term strategies would have to take a back seat to accommodating online learning and virtual meetings. This year, as things have begun to open up, we are looking forward to a hybrid virtual/in person meeting. A great deal of staff and volunteer work have gone into this pivot and remaining nimble as the facts change.

That said, COVID accelerated other standing NASS priorities. For example, we have long wanted to improve our website, its searchability and its usefulness for online education. These changes became major priorities this year and have moved forward quickly.

SpU: What have you anticipated would be your biggest challenge? What’s turned out to be your biggest challenge so far?

ET: I knew the fiscal and practical realities of covid would have a major impact on my presidency. On the other hand, my travel time and impact on my practice has been almost nothing compared to the initially budgeted time. I think the biggest challenges in this rapidly changing world lie in communications and how they vary with interest groups and by training background. In the wrong context, a completely non-political statement can be misread by and offend certain members.

SpU: How do you feel the 2020 virtual conference went? What are the plans for the 2021 Boston conference in September? Have you found planning this year’s conference particularly challenging?

ET: I am just returning from our much-delayed site visit to Boston. It has been a beautiful weekend in a beautiful city. The city’s compact layout and visitor-friendly environment should make for an excellent locale for a return to in person meetings. In short, I am very excited about this September. Yet, we learned a huge number of valuable lessons from our 2020 virtual meeting. It was highly educational and it allowed us to connect with our members, albeit not in person. Moving forward, this will be a great backup for members who cannot attend in person. Our staff and program committee have spent countless hours ensuring excellent hands on/lab experience for those attending in person, but also compact, engaging pathways for virtual attendees. This year, our IT structure has evolved and the virtual meeting will be an even smoother experience for those, especially international members, who cannot fly to Boston.  

SpU: What does “diversity” mean to you? What does it mean to NASS? What sort of programs or initiative has NASS undertaken this year in pursuit of more diversity?

ET: NASS has always been a diverse organization in a couple of senses. First, as a thoroughly multidisciplinary organization, we have sought to improve spine care through collaboration with rather than competition with other spine care providers. This has been extremely powerful when working with CMS, private payers and other stakeholders. Second, we have long had solid representation from spine care providers in a wide range of geographical and practice settings. In terms of the practice aspects of spine care, the suburban or rural private practitioner has much to teach the central city academic, and vice versa.

Of course, we are far from satisfied. Two of our largest member groups come from orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery. These fields have long underrepresented women and many minority groups. Over the last year, we have initiated a diversity effort and it is moving along well. Unfortunately, the extended training time in these fields means that we will be confronting this problem for years to come. In the meanwhile, we seek to increase outreach to increase medical student interest in spine care. For those under-represented groups, we are trying to create a welcoming environment and to offer multiple opportunities for engagement at the committee and other levels.

SpU: How are you navigating the political climate? What are your members’ top priorities when it comes to advocacy? Have you had any notable advocacy victories so far? 

ET: Our advocacy efforts are strictly pro-spine and do not favor one party over the other. Our members, on the other hand, come from nearly every part of the political spectrum. These challenges come with opportunities. The new administration is very different from the previous and it is up to us to figure how to best communicate the needs of spine patients and providers in this new context. Our advocacy arm, the National Association of Spine Specialists, continues to engage with NASS membership to identify the top issues impacting spine, and subsequently with health care champions on Capitol Hill to advance our legislative priorities.

2021 NASS President Eeric Truumees, MD2021 NASS President Eeric Truumees, MD

About three months ago, we surveyed our members, so we know their goals and interests. Stabilizing Medicare reimbursement was the number one issue. In the short-term, this required extending the suspension on Medicare sequester cuts (which we just successfully postponed through the end of the year). Now we want to extend this beyond 2021. Secondly, we have worked on the Improving Seniors’ Timely Access to Care Act, a bill that aims to modernize prior authorization. With the majority of the House supporting this commonsense reform, now it is time to get this bill passed. The goal here is to prevent needless delays in care for patients, and reduce the increasing burden on both office staff and physicians who spend significant time away from patients to work on prior auths that should be routinely approved.

We are also working on medical liability reform and legislative issues to preserve fee for service medicine.  We are supporting efforts to permanently codify Telehealth payment-parities that have been widely embraced during the pandemic. We are strongly advocating for additional GME funding due to the shortage of physicians in the workforce. We hope some of this support will be included in any final infrastructure package.

We successfully improved patient protections in Surprise Medical Billing. The current legislation, while not exactly what medicine wanted, is much better than earlier versions. This effort keeps patients "out of the middle” and sets up an independent dispute resolution (IDR) process between the physician and the insurance company. We are working with HHS to finalize the regulations to enhance the bill.

We held our fundraising in abeyance during the height to COVID.  We recently restarted fundraising for SpinePAC, the nation’s only PAC dedicated to advancing the spine profession, and had our most successful quarter ever.

SpU: For what new features should visitors to the NASS website be on the lookout? 

ET: In its Archives, NASS has huge amounts of incredible, unbiased educational content from experts worldwide. Unfortunately, that material was not easy to reach. We have a new search feature designed from the ground up. In addition, NASS staff and volunteers have been going through this content to curate the best experience for operative and non-operative spine care providers at all levels of experience.

SpU: What is NASS doing to attract more international members this year?

ET: Traditionally, Canadian and Mexican spine care providers have had the choice of joining NASS as regular or international members. Over the past couple of years, we have expanded our international outreach through Patrick Hsieh, MD our International Council Director and Michael Piccarillo, the director of NASS international. This effort, while slowed by COVID, has been an excellent opportunity to expand our membership and share best practices with countries around the world. We have a fairly advanced set of procedures to develop evidence-based care guides and finished work product in many areas.

SpU: How would you rate your performance as president thus far? Do you think you will be able to accomplish your main goals?

ET: I would give myself a solid B+. While this is not my first leadership role, I continue to learn from my mistakes. Much of our strategic direction is guided by the Executive Committee, which includes the presidential line, the treasurer and the secretary. This system offers additional training for incoming presidents while also ensuring continuity in vision year over year. We have made progress in a number of areas, but I would hesitate to say we “closed the book” on any of them. Luckily, none of these efforts will stop when Ed Dohring takes over for me at the end of September.

Updated on: 06/24/21
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2020 NASS Annual Meeting: Question Your Biases, Says NASS President
Eeric Truumees, MD
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