Flexibility, patience & financial stability — 5 spine surgeons on lessons learned in 2020


From financial conservatism to flexibility and honing in on patient care, five spine surgeons and one physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist share the most significant lessons learned from 2020:

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 do you expect negotiations with commercial payers to look like this year?

Please send responses to Alan Condon at acondon@beckershealthcare.com by 5 p.m. CST Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Note: The following responses were lightly edited for style and clarity.

Question: What is the most important career-related lesson you learned in 2020?

Rojeh Melikian, MD. DISC Sports & Spine Center (Newport Beach, Calif.): The most important career-related lesson I learned in 2020 was to stay flexible. Whether it be having employees work from home, seeing patients over [virtual] visits rather than in person, or having to move surgeries around due to upswings or downswings in hospital COVID-19 numbers, I learned to be more flexible.

Jeremy Smith, MD. Hoag Orthopedic Institute (Irvine, Calif.): As an active surgeon in the thick of a global pandemic, there are many lessons I have learned personally and professionally. I learned to become resourceful when resources were slim. I learned to appreciate and value my team at work and my team at home. I learned that when something of such significance shakes you, being financially conservative has proven to be an absolute necessity. When elective surgeries are off the table and patient load becomes minimal due to local ordinances, financial stability is key. Above all, the most important thing I have learned is to hug the people I love a little tighter.

Christian Zimmerman, MD. Saint Alphonsus Medical Group and SAHS Neuroscience Institute (Boise, Idaho): New order prioritization and patience. The back and forth of resource allocation, advanced testing and remedy prior to interview and surgical treatment, staffing changes and patient expectations certainly taxed an already fragile system. Yet, all of us, as professionals, as a profession, as a community, continue to persevere to administer to those who seek and require specialty care. Albeit, these hardships remain for most, so does the quiet, enduring and innate motivation to overcome the many obstacles. Respect and admiration to my many coworkers (especially nursing and their hardships) and their individual sacrifices during this trying period of healthcare delivery and its crises.  

Richard Chua, MD, Northwest NeuroSpecialists (Tucson, Ariz.): I have learned how to be more flexible and patient, especially related to all the constraints the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on my ability to care for patients. I also learned that the culture of an organization can flip with only a minimal change in leadership. Again, be patient, be flexible, and all things will come to fruition.

Brian Gantwerker, MD. Craniospinal Center of Los Angeles: I think the most insightful thing I learned is to just focus on what we are doing, how we are doing it and how to keep doing it well. In competitive markets, patients have a lot of options. And, like most companies, you have to focus on the things you can control in your own space. We focus on the patients, serving them in a way that we can help them — not just in getting into and through their surgeries, but the other stuff as well  — timely orders for medications, physical therapy, information and access to us when they need it.

Thomas Hudgins, MD. PM&R specialist at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute (Chicago): When we think about the changes to our daily practice during COVID, telehealth is top of mind. We had to adapt and change quickly to provide access of care to our patients remotely. Once we resolved the initial hiccups, the tool of telehealth has become a valuable aspect of our ability to continue to provide care to our patients, both for urgent issues and chronic stable conditions. But the most important lesson I learned during COVID is to always check in with my patients. They may come to see me for sciatica or back pain that needs to be addressed during that visit, but I found it was always most important and most appreciated to check in — ask them how they were doing, how they were handling any new stressors or changes in their lives like so many of us faced. We quickly realized we all have much more in common than we think.

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