The essential traits of successful spine surgeon leaders


Nine spine surgeons discuss the personality traits that govern spine surgeon success.

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.

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Question: What are key personality traits essential for success as a spine surgeon?


Zafar Khan, MD. Co-Director of the Robotic Spine Institute at Coastline Orthopaedic Associates (Fountain Valley, Calif.): I think it's important to be confident yet humble. I think it's important to be mentally disciplined and compassionate at the same time. Surgery is a balance and surgeons have to balance their emotions and their intellect for success.


Fred Sweet, MD. Co-Founder of Rockford (Ill.) Spine Center: Humility. Consider your patients, colleagues, residents and associative staff as more important than yourself. Arrogance and pride prevent you from recognizing mistakes, growing professionally as well as alienate those that can help you, anger patients and give rise to lawsuits. Give others the benefit of doubt despite apparent facts or circumstances. Do what is best for the group practice as a whole, not your individual practice. Be available to all patients regardless of insurance status.


Brian R. Gantwerker, MD. Founder of the Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: Most surgeons tend to be detail-driven, perfectionists and workaholics. Beyond that is the same thing any successful business leader needs: a positive attitude, ability to be a good listener and an investment in the outcome.


Vladimir Sinkov, MD. Spine Surgeon at New Hampshire Orthopaedic Center (Nashua): Willingness to work hard and for long hours, desire to constantly learn new scientific findings and surgical techniques, ability to handle a lot of stress associated with these high-risk surgeries are some key qualities. The main quality of a successful spine surgeon, however, is excellent patient care and bedside manner. You have to be good at what you do, but you also must be able to communicate that to the patient, ease their fears and show them that you truly care.


Richard Kube, MD. Founder and CEO of Prairie Spine & Pain Institute (Peoria, Ill.): Perseverance, confidence and charisma mixed with empathy are all important traits. The road to becoming a spine surgeon is long and it doesn't really get easier once you get there. It will take perseverance to deal with the ever-increasing administrative tasks and issues we have. One has to be confident in the work they do and the advice he or she provides. Spine surgery is high-stakes surgery. Up-to-date clinical knowledge and confidence in its application are paramount.


Last, and probably most importantly, is the empathy which helps to create charisma. You have to connect with the patient. This requires listening and really treating the whole person. If you can empathize, and add the confidence and perseverance you will appear charismatic to the patients and they will trust you. It is important that they trust you and follow your advice to obtain the optimum outcome. It all boils down to leadership and demonstrating it in a way that connects with the folks who trust us with their care.


Alden Milam, MD. Spine Surgeon at OrthoCarolina (Charlotte, N.C.): Persistence and a laser focus are the most important traits for success in the spine arena.


Plas T. James, MD. Spine Surgeon at Atlanta Spine Institute: I think the most important thing is to listen to your patient and try to find out why your patient is there. Your reasoning for their complaint may be different from their reasoning. Make sure you address all their complaints, even if it isn't the root of all their problems, and explain what's causing it. For example, if they complain of leg pain, back pain and arm pain, it matters which one is more prominent. The operation can be totally different if the patient complains of leg pain versus back pain. So, listening to your patient is always extremely important.


J. Brian Gill, MD. Spine Surgeon at Nebraska Spine Hospital (Omaha): Personality traits that are a key for success are not just for spine surgeons but for all healthcare providers. We are in a service industry and our customers are our patients that we serve. The golden rule 'do to others what you would have them do to you,' from Matt 7:12, is a commonly referenced guideline to follow. Treat your patients with respect and kindness and ultimately treat your patients how you would want to be treated. From a macro standpoint, being flexible and able to adapt as the law, insurance guidelines/policies and politics continue to change are important traits to have.


Kern Singh, MD. Co-Director of Minimally Invasive Spine Institute at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush (Chicago): A successful spine surgeon needs to be enthusiastic and engaged in the field. The ongoing innovations in spine surgery require that a surgeon is eager to learn and master these new advancements in order to be successful. Additionally, they should have a strong scientific curiosity to contribute to the future of the field. Successful surgeons must also be team players in order to effectively collaborate with their patients and other healthcare providers.


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