What it takes for spine surgeons to become level 5 leaders: Q&A with Dr. Jeffrey Wang

Written by Laura Dyrda | November 05, 2018 | Print  |

Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, has devoted his career to advancing spine surgery and care as a surgeon, scientist and department leader. He is currently the chief of the orthopedic spine service and co-director of the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles.

Dr. Wang was also named the 2018-19 president of the North American Spine Society at the organization's annual meeting in September. Here, Dr. Wang discusses leadership and technology in the spine field and shares his best advice for up-and-coming surgeon leaders.

Question: What are the big lessons that you've learned and best advice you've gotten?

Dr. Jeffrey C. Wang: Life is a learning process, and you learn from experience. You get that experience when you are dealing with patients in the clinical environment, but when I reflect back on it, being in an academic environment has also helped me grow. At Keck Medicine of USC, there is excitement around you, with spine surgeons and orthopedic surgeons that are like-minded. There is a group mentality at an academic medical center that you strive for excellence and take care of your patients, and I think that really helps me learn about myself as well as how to better deal with people.

I think professional medical societies like NASS provide important learning opportunities as well. My committee and international work have been life experiences that have shaped me. My advice to young people is to pick what you do, but don't get so isolated that you are just in your own practice and not interacting with other people. Make sure you have colleagues, get involved in societies and interact with others; that interaction really teaches you a lot.

Q: What characteristics or values are important for spine surgeons to rise into leadership roles?

JCW: You need to be a level five leader. That comes from the book 'Good to Great' by Jim Collins. People in business understand that. Collins looked at businesses that were very good and became great. He found that most people are at a level four; they are great leaders, they can manage people and tasks, but the thing that takes you from being a level four to a level five is being selfless, doing what is best for your organization and putting your organization first. If you think about CEOs that you see on TV, they are level four because they are putting themselves out there. To be a level five, you put the institution out there. If you make selfless decisions, whether at the committee level or a high-level board, people will listen to you because your point is valid. If you make your points based on selfish gain, people will see through that.

That's my biggest advice to young people who are dealing with patients, committee members or people on high-level boards: If your comments are in line with what is best for the organization, people will listen. You can be the youngest person in the room, but if all your points are based on what is best for the organization, people will listen.

Q: For any surgeon seeing patients, that's a huge focus and important aspect of the career. But beyond that, what has been the most important time investment you have made?

JCW: It has been on the human side of patient care. You get so caught up in patients, family, doing surgeries. You get caught up in whether you coded and dictated notes appropriately, but you can't lose sight of the fact that these patients are people. If I've been in the operating room all day, I go and round on patients before I go home to see them and the smiles on their faces. That's why I got into medicine in the first place. You can't lose sight of that. In today's world, it's easy to lose sight of it because we have new technology, studies and innovations that are exciting. But don't forget there are humans there you are treating and it's worthwhile because you're doing it for the patient.

Q: Looking at whether it's spine technology or patient communication technologies, is there anything you have found to be a game-changer?

JCW: New technology is great. It's expensive and an investment, and you have to be open-minded in using it. Surgeons can be stubborn, but you have to be open to it. The thing that I consider a game-changer at Keck Medicine of USC is that they have invested in us — we have some of the greatest technology available. When I talk to friends at other places, they don't always have access to new technology.

Q: How do you make a decision about which technology to move forward with?

JCW: The hot topic is minimally invasive surgery, navigation and robotics. Thankfully we do a lot of minimally invasive surgery and we have navigation, which has really changed the way we do surgery. I think it's improved our outcomes. The next step is the robot. But we have to be judicious; we can't just go out and buy every new toy. We have to look at whether it improves patient outcomes and make sure it's worth the investment.

To participate in future Becker's Q&A opportunities, contact Laura Dyrda at ldyrda@beckershealthcare.com.

To learn more about the biggest trends in spine today, register for the Becker's Future of Spine + Spine, Orthopedic and Pain Management-Driven ASC Conference, June 13-15, 2019 in Chicago.

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