Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as the question of when life will return to “normal” has echoed across the globe, the American College of Rheumatology has maintained its dedication to improving the care of patients with rheumatic disease and advancing the rheumatology subspecialty, said ACR President David R. Karp, MD, PhD, in his Presidential Address during the Opening Session at ACR Convergence 2021.
But normalcy is not the College’s mission, noted Dr. Karp, whose presentation as well as the entire Opening Session can be viewed by registered meeting participants through March 11, 2022.
“Despite all that has happened in the last 20 months, the ACR, its members, and our global rheumatology community have accomplished things that are not just normal, they are truly amazing,” said Dr. Karp, Chief of the Rheumatic Diseases Division at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “We have solved problems we never thought we would have faced using tools we never imagined would have existed. Rheumatologists and rheumatology health professionals continue to be the most creative, collaborative, and constructive group of people I know.”
ACR Convergence 2020 is just one example. The first all-virtual annual meeting not only accelerated the ACR’s adoption of virtual education, it also had more than 14,000 registered participants from 111 countries. Additional online education developed during the pandemic includes the Virtual Rheumatology Learning Collaborative, the Virtual Rheumatology Practicum, and the Virtual Rheumatology Teaching Lessons, all of which are part of the Virtual Rheumatology Program—Fellows in Training.
“Each of these educational activities is remarkable, not only because they were created in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also that they are outstanding examples of how education can be delivered globally and asynchronously, linking the most interesting educators with the most interested learners when and where it is most convenient for them,” Dr. Karp said.
Other initiatives launched during the pandemic provide ACR members with guidance on the management of patients with rheumatic diseases who are exposed to or infected with COVID-19 and children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, as well as the administration of COVID-19 vaccines in rheumatology patients.
The pandemic also spurred the creation of the Global Rheumatology Alliance (GRA), a registry of the effects of COVID-19 infection on patients with rheumatic disease. The ACR provides administrative support to the GRA, which has collected data on almost 20,000 individuals representing all 50 U.S. states and more than 100 countries. In the past year, the GRA has published nearly 30 manuscripts on COVID-19 and issues important to rheumatology, and shared more insights from the registry during ACR Convergence 2021.
“Their patient surveys revealed the extent to which COVID-19 changed the lives of people with rheumatic diseases,” Dr. Karp said. “For example, 27% had a change in employment status and nearly 20% discontinued at least one of their anti-rheumatic medications because of unavailability or fears of immunosuppression.”
Dr. Karp believes global collaboration linking large numbers of patients, trainees, and researchers from diverse locales will be increasingly prevalent.
“The lessons learned from the GRA will be refined and applied to many more questions, even when the pandemic is behind us,” he said.
Beyond the pandemic, the ACR has pledged to be a leader in the effort to eliminate bias and reduce health disparities, noted Dr. Karp, describing the Collaborative Initiatives, or COIN. Since launching in 2009 as The Lupus Initiative, COIN has received more than $21 million in government grants to educate healthcare providers about implicit bias and health disparities, help community workers understand the issues faced by people with chronic rheumatic conditions, and increase minority participants in clinical research. COIN programs have addressed osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and lupus nephritis.
To support training and career development within the field, the ACR has established two programs focused on mentorship. Creating Adult Rheumatology Mentorship in Academia (CARMA) and the ACR/Childhood Arthritis and Rheumatology Research Alliance (CARRA) Mentoring Interest Group for Pediatric Rheumatologists (AMIGO) connect junior faculty with mentors selected to meet their career aspirations. Last year, when CARMA and AMIGO activities were conducted virtually, 90% of participants reported the programs enhanced their academic productivity and their connection to the rheumatology profession, Dr. Karp noted.
“Through these facilitated mentor-mentee interactions, the ACR is helping to bring people into our incredible profession and ensuring successful careers,” he said.
The Rheumatology Research Foundation has been key to advancing rheumatology career development, research, and innovation for 35 years, including during the pandemic. The Foundation has funded four studies related to COVID-19 — a prospective analysis of the effects of immunomodulatory therapy on the susceptibility to and outcome from COVID-19 in patients with inflammatory arthritis; a study of the role of antiphospholipid antibodies in COVID-19; and two studies on the optimization of telehealth and rheumatology. This fiscal year, the Foundation has committed nearly $13 million to awards, a 12% increase over the prior year.
During the Opening Session, Foundation President S. Louis Bridges Jr., MD, PhD, provided an update on the Foundation’s ongoing fundraising campaign, Leading Boldly: Transforming Rheumatology. Launched in 2017 with the goal of raising $75 million in five years, the campaign exceeded its target. With two months left, it had raised more than $78.55 million.
“Through our extensive awards portfolio, the Foundation provides the crucial funding for medical students and residents exploring rheumatology as a career, and young investigators with novel research ideas,” said Dr. Bridges, noting the Foundation has committed $192 million to its mission since 1985. “We also provide substantial support for established investigators. This significant investment is essential to advancing patient care and accelerating discoveries.”
Several award recipients received special recognition during the Opening Session, including Association of Rheumatology Professionals (ARP) 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Catherine Backman, PhD, Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada.
“Three characteristics that would define Dr. Backman are passion, innovation, intelligence, and taking those skills and applying them to everything she does,” said ARP President Christine Stamatos, DNP, ANP-C.
Stanley B. Cohen, MD, received the 2021 Presidential Gold Medal. Dr. Cohen is Medical Director of the Rheumatology Division at Presbyterian Hospital; Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School; and Co-Medical Director at Metroplex Clinical Research Center, Dallas.
“Stan is really a classic triple threat, and I mean that in the very best way. He’s a practitioner, he’s a researcher, and he’s a visionary leader,” said ACR Past President James R. O’Dell, MD.
All of the award presentations can be viewed at the links below:
REGISTER TODAY FOR ACR CONVERGENCE
If you haven’t registered for ACR Convergence 2021, register today to access all of the valuable content during the meeting, November 3–10. Registration also includes on-demand access to the virtual platform (session recordings, Poster Hall, Community Hubs, and ShowRheum) until March 11, 2022.