Since 1987, Dr. Richard Weiner of Dallas Neurosurgical and Spine Associates has been one of the area’s leading neurosurgeons, specializing in the surgical treatment of a variety of spine and brain disorders.
In recent years however Dr. Weiner has expanded his practice farther eastward – nearly 8,000 miles farther. He is a founding member of American Surgeons International (ASI); a group of spine and joint surgeons from the DFW metroplex dedicated to providing quality surgical care overseas. Over the past 14 months, Dr. Weiner has traveled nine times to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia seeing and operating on patients there with spinal problems.
“We tend to lump all the Middle Eastern countries together which isn’t accurate at all: Bahrain is very different from Afghanistan,” Dr. Weiner says. And as it turns out Saudi Arabia has many similarities with America. Not only have the two countries been strong allies for decades but the Saudi lifestyle in some ways is very similar to ours. “Saudi diets tend to be high in carbohydrates and the lifestyle can be quite sedentary,” Dr. Weiner explains. “These factors contribute greatly to the onset and persistence of chronic back and other spine problems.”
There is one more distinctly Arabic characteristic that plays a major role, too: prayer. “Devout Muslims pray five times a day with very specific movements which, it so happens, can place excessive strain on the knees and spine. The frequency and manner of Muslim prayer over time can be very hard on the knees and back, particularly when you’re out of shape and overweight.”
While the Saudi healthcare system is quite up-to-date in many areas of the country, they lag behind in the effective treatment of back pain and spinal diseases, an area where the US leads the world. In the past, many Saudis would travel to the U.S. for the advanced spinal surgeries and treatments they can’t get at home, treatments that are a matter of routine for Dr. Weiner and his partners at Dallas Neurosurgical and Spine Associates.
This is not another example of the super wealthy going anywhere they want so long as there’s a runway big enough to handle the private jet. Despite the stereotype of the Arabian sheik, Saudis are no wealthier than people from most of the world's developed countries. And their ability to travel has been equally hampered by the global recession.
For the majority of Saudis suffering with severe back and spinal problems this has meant a choice of settling for less effective treatments or trying to live with the pain, neither of which are desirable options for Dr. Weiner. “Saudi Arabia's medical facilities are excellent, their physicians and surgeons are very good, but they lack the expertise for complex surgeries of this type. That's something we knew we could provide. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Indeed it was. With each visit that Dr. Weiner and his colleagues have taken, the list of patients waiting to see them grows longer. “This area of healthcare is clearly underserved,” said Dr. Weiner, “but the solution isn’t just to make more and more surgical trips to Saudi Arabia.”
Part of the answer is the establishment of a permanent center for spinal surgeries in the region either within an existing Saudi Hospital network or in a brand-new facility, and Dr. Weiner has been instrumental in helping to make this happen. But the most effective solution ultimately is for Saudi men and women to understand how to take better care of themselves, which is why Dr. Weiner devotes much of his time in Saudi Arabia not just to spine surgery, but to clinics and other educational programs that help teach Saudi healthcare professionals preventative care for long-term spinal health.
And how is it working? “The Saudi people I’ve met are very appreciative of our efforts.” Dr. Weiner says. “Like patients the world over, they want to live productive and pain-free lives. I think we're making very good progress. But we still have quite a way to go.”