Dr. Mark McLaughlin on what drives him as a neurosurgeon, how being a hall of fame wrestler has helped him in medicine & more

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Mark McLaughlin is a board-certified neurosurgeon practicing at Princeton Brain and Spine Care in New Jersey.

He has published over 100 articles on neurosurgery and spoken internationally about his field.

A former NCAA Division I wrestler, Dr. McLaughlin was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2016.

Here, Dr. McLaughlin provides his insight into what drives him as a neurosurgeon, how his athletic background has helped him in the medical field and advice for physicians considering a career in spine.

Question: What are the challenges that drive you as a neurosurgeon? What do you most enjoy?

Dr. Mark McLaughlin: I most enjoy doing a few great cases with a skilled assistant and seasoned scrub nurse. That is my ideal day. There’s no better feeling than tying the last suture and knowing that you and your team gave that patient the very best care. That’s what keeps me coming to work every morning.

Q: What do you see as the major challenges currently facing spinal medicine?

MM: We as a profession have created the most innovative platform of solutions for our patients. The breadth of implants, surgical approaches, medications and treatment options is staggering compared to just 25 years ago. However, the economic climate and growth of the Medicare population cannot support all of these innovations. Payers continually want to pay less for more. This cannot last, especially when more Medicare patients flood the system and require spinal care. Innovation comes with a price tag, and our politicians and insurance CEOs are going to have to come to grips with that or we will all suffer.

Q: What comparisons can you draw from your experiences as a hall of fame wrestler and a top neurosurgeon? Has your athletic background helped you combat mental fatigue or burnout?

MM: Athletics has provided me with three safety nets to prevent burnout. First it has blessed me with many close friends — blood brothers — I can lean on in times of need. Second, it has given me a window into the mindset of young athletes today. When I see a 20-year-old elite athlete with a cervical disc herniation, I can offer a Division I college athlete’s perspective. I think it gives me an advantage in helping them weigh treatment options. Knowing firsthand the workouts and stresses they are going to endure helps me guide these patients to their best, most durable option. And third, athletics helped me learn how to lose. Failure is part of our profession too. The more familiar you are with it, the more resilient you can be.

Q: What advice would you offer to younger physicians considering a career in spine?

MM: There is always opportunity for talented, thoughtful, well-rounded spine surgeons. If it’s your passion, then follow it. But watch out for burnout. I recently wrote an article for Business Insider about this insidious affliction and how I help avoid it. Here’s a synopsis of my tips.

Burnout, simply put, is exhaustion and an inability to cope that affects people in the helping professions, such as physicians, therapists and nurses. But it also hits people who don’t have official titles but who nonetheless suffer from overload due to caring for a family member or friend.  

I’ve found there are four ways to help alleviate that feeling of stagnation, even withdrawal from the things that once were enjoyable. One is partnerships with people who serve as mentors or advisors, people whose judgment you trust. These are the people you call when you have to talk something over, when you need a lifeline. Productive pauses, introduced to me by my life coach Jim Harshaw, are short periods of time when you study specific questions. These breaks in the day are calming and lead to answers. Or as I have said, it's creating your own green room in your mind. You can't always be performing; you must have some offstage time.

Another somewhat under-appreciated quality to help escape the heat of burnout is curiosity. It’s learning about a new topic, having conversations with people you may not agree with but whose viewpoints can be illuminating. It’s also listening to podcasts on new subjects.  It’s all about challenging your thinking so you don’t get stale. Finally, stewardship is an invaluable gift to give, to have. It’s sharing your knowledge, coaching kids in sports, paying it forward in all aspects of your life.

Q: Is there a single initiative your organization has undertaken recently that you are particularly proud of?

MM: My managing partner, Nirav Shah, initiated a clinical assistant and scribe system for improved patient traffic though the office. This helps our company, Princeton Brain and Spine, have better documentation and more efficient data entry into the patient’s chart. These clinical assistants and scribes are recruited from a pool of pre-med and post-baccalaureate students seeking experience and training before they head to medical school. They are superstars with a great attitude and eagerness to learn. Plus, we’re giving them patient interaction experience.  It’s a win-win!

Q: What are your professional goals this year and for the next few years?

MM: My immediate goal is to complete my first non-medical book. It’s called Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear to be published by Black Irish Books in October. It’s a big idea book told as an adventure story. The narrative follows my 28-year career as a brain and spine surgeon. Through the arduous journey of learning and then mastering my craft, I synthesize a system for metabolizing the No. 1 occupational hazard in the profession: the constant onslaught of fear. This system which I call Cognitive Dominance helps me survive and thrive not only in my world of neurosurgery, but also in life. And along the way I realized that this skill is transferrable to everyday situations everyone faces. I’m excited to share this with my patients and the public.

My next goal is to figure out how I can remain a productive, valuable, and quality-driven senior member of the practice. It’s been hard giving up the reins of managing partner to a younger person and transitioning to a more senior role in the practice. I don’t want to be the old guy who everybody’s waiting to retire. In this next phase of my career I want to be the best senior member our practice ever has and continue to serve as a mentor in helping colleagues deal with the many challenging issues we all will likely face in this modern rapidly changing world of medicine.  

I think my biggest and most difficult goal to work on is learning how to relax. I struggle with this and I’m sure many of my colleagues do as well. I’m taking it in small bites trying to create a little “white space” which one of my writing teachers, Sheila Heen, taught me. It’s little things like driving the car without the radio on or listening to a podcast. It’s walking around the house without the cell phone on my hip, it’s reading a nonmedical book first thing in the morning and the last thing at night.

The problem is that we are trained to be constantly vigilant and relaxation averse. What I’m finding is that my white space time has helped me be more creative… and lower my tension levels. I’m a work in progress.

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