The top-performing spine surgeons have these qualities in common


Five spine surgeons weigh in on the qualities that high-performing spine leaders possess.

Ask Spine Surgeons is a weekly series of questions posed to spine surgeons around the country about clinical, business and policy issues affecting spine care. We invite all spine surgeon and specialist responses.

Next week's question: What to say when your patient wants to pursue experimental therapy? And what do you say when you know it won't work?

Please send responses to Anuja Vaidya at by Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 5 p.m. CST.

Question: What are the essential qualities of top-performing spine surgeons?


Brian R. Gantwerker, MD. The Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: I don't know if I can necessarily consider myself in this category. But I do consider myself lucky enough to practice where I do and have been fortunate enough to have an amazing partner in my wife. She helped me set the foundation and scrape together this practice in the beginning and continuously helps it thrive.


So firstly, you need someone besides you who is dedicated to you succeeding. To be successful would also, I guess, be dependent on your ability to get and hold on to patients and referring doctors, establish a good reputation and have reproducibly good outcomes.  On the other side, I also think being able to critically evaluate your outcomes and mistakes, take responsibility when things go sideways and not judge other's work more harshly than your own is important.


One last important quality is an ability to explain a surgery to a patient in a clear manner and offer concise and fair advice on what you think the next step will be. If you are trustworthy, confident and can answer the patient's questions, you have a good chance of getting into that upper echelon.


J. Brian Gill, MD, MBA. Spine Surgeon at Nebraska Spine Hospital (Omaha): The essential qualities are what we all have heard but may not always embrace, including availability, affability and ability. Providing quality care to the patients you serve and treating each as your own family goes a long way in the care that you provide. That may sound a bit cliché but it's the truth. I think being honest with your patients and telling them what they need to hear and not what they want to hear is very important.


Finally, every encounter that you have with a patient, nurse, administrator, scrub tech, etcetera, is an opportunity to market yourself. You can choose to market yourself in a favorable light or one that less than desirable. We all have to remember that we are in a service industry and the consumer is our patients, and we are only as good as the last patient that we treat.


Rojeh Melikian, MD. DISC Sports & Spine Center (Marina del Rey, Calif.): Patience, experience and the urge to never stop learning.


Vladimir Sinkov, MD. Spine Surgeon at New Hampshire Orthopaedic Center (Nashua): An excellent spine surgeon should first of all be an excellent clinician. The most critical task for better outcomes of surgeries is not the mechanical performance of the surgery, but knowing which patients would actually benefit from the surgery and what is the best way to perform such surgery on that particular patient. The surgeon must have excellent bedside manner — it builds trust and ensures maximum compliance of the patient with the surgeon's recommendations.  


The top-performing surgeon must never stop learning. The knowledge base in spine surgery is increasing rapidly. Staying on top of it. Learning the newest techniques, treatments, diagnostic modalities and outcomes studies will allow such a surgeon to take the best possible care of his or her patients.


Mark Nolden, MD. Spine Surgeon at NorthShore Orthopaedic Institute (Chicago): Stamina is what top-performing spine surgeons need most. They have long and demanding hours. High volumes are expected to grow as the patient population ages, so they need to stay strong physically and mentally to meet today's spine care needs.


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