Cathy Craven
Dr. Cathy Craven says next week's conference will focus on sex, gender and the health of women, as well as the consideration of unconscious biases in care. (Photo: UHN)

Some of Canada's leading researchers in spinal cord injury will be betting on a better future for their patients when they gather at an important national conference in Niagara Falls next week.

But while the bright lights and casino games a few blocks away might be tempting for some visitors, these conference-goers are more interested in increasing the odds of providing a better future for the 40,000 people in Canada who live with a spinal cord injury.

"The majority of attendees, volunteers, keynote speakers and workshop participants come from UHN – so the conference wouldn't exist without us – but this is a national conference and we want it to have a global impact," says Dr. Cathy Craven, co-organizer of the biennial Canadian Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Association National Conference. It takes place Oct. 17 to 19.

Dr. Craven, who is also Medical Lead for Toronto Rehab's Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program and a Senior Scientist and leader of the Neural Engineering and Therapeutics (NET) team at The KITE Research Institute, says the conference's areas of focus this year include the diversity of human experience in terms of sex and gender expression and the promotion of unbiased rehabilitation service delivery.

A lot of clinical services tailored to men

"The conference program centres around sex, gender and the health of women, the consideration of unconscious biases and how we can bring about transparency," says Dr. Craven.

"The keynote speakers are going to speak to specific issues related to the care of women with spinal cord injury and how it's a little bit different."

Dr. Craven notes that the majority of spinal cord injury patients are men – and as a result their needs drive service levels.

By the numbers

  • 40,000: Number of Canadians living with a spinal cord injury
  • 1,000: Number of new cases each year in Canada
  • 400: Number of attendees expected at Canadian Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Association National Conference

"A lot of the clinical programs and services offered are tailored for men, and so when the rare woman shows up we are not very prepared," says Dr. Craven. "We need to look at how service delivery models need to flex and take into consideration the gender roles in our society."

To coincide with the event, scientists on the NET team at UHN have also contributed to a special supplemental issue of the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine covering a variety of topics that will be under discussion by delegates. Read the Special Edition for the 8th National Spinal Cord Injury Conference.

More specifically, the issue contains nine articles about what is known as SCI-HIGH – spinal cord injury high performance indicators. The articles outline the development and implementation of indicators of quality care that are planned for provincial deployment in tertiary academic rehab centres in London, Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa over the next two years.

In advance of the formal conference, Dr. Craven and Dr. Mark Bayley, Toronto Rehab's Medical Director, will also lead a two-day workshop (Oct. 15 and 16) with 50 national spinal cord leaders that is designed to develop a new set of guidelines for the treatment of patients with spinal cord injury.

Woman talking to another woman in a wheelchair
The majority spinal cord programs and services are designed for men. UHN's Dr. Cathy Craven says current delivery models need to flex to better reflect society's gender roles. (Photo: Pexels)

"These will be converted into guidelines for care across the health system, from the time of an accident, including roadside management, all the way through to living in the community."

The goal is to get these guidelines on the desks of politicians, health system leaders, regulated healthcare professionals, stakeholders, and persons with lived experience with spinal cord injury.

"It's going to articulate what are the standards and then people are going to have to ask if they are being met," says Dr. Craven. "We know now that you can improve outcomes as a result or early recognition, transfer, early spinal cord decompression and good rehab."

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