I am often asked questions like “Will YOU actually be doing my surgery?” and “Does a teaching hospital mean someone will be practicing surgery on my back?” These questions made me realize that many patients don’t understand what it means to receive care in an academic medical center, so I thought I would try to explain this in more detail.
Most of the differences in a true academic medical center, especially for a spine center, represent benefits that the patient may not even realize. First, to be a physician at an academic medical center, the surgeon also must be a professor, usually in a School of Medicine. As part of the medical school faculty, these physicians, in addition to taking care of patients, are teaching surgical techniques to the future generation of surgeons and/or performing research that is allowing for new discoveries and advancements in the field. This means that patients are exposed to the latest advances in surgical techniques and technology.
In addition, because of the teaching process, the patient will likely have a second MD assisting (helping retract and hold tissues), rather than just one surgeon and a nurse or surgical assistant. I would liken it to a pilot and co-pilot flying an airplane. Spine surgery is serious business, with little room for error, so you can rest assured that at any reputable academic center (such as Emory), the key portions of the surgery will be performed by your surgeon.
A second benefit comes from the collaborative environment in a multidisciplinary spine center. At the Emory Spine Center, one of the largest in the U.S., there are physical medicine/rehabilitation, occupational medicine, psychology, orthopaedic surgery, and neurological surgery physicians all seeing patients side by side every day. This spectrum of physicians ensures that no matter what a patient’s spine problem may be, he or she is sure to find a true expert among the staff. This environment takes the worry away from the patient about which type of specialist to see.
All of the surgical and nonsurgical physicians working at the Emory Spine Center have been fellowship trained (which means they’ve received extra training to specialize in spine care) and spend the majority of their clinical practice diagnosing and treating only patients with spine problems. This level of sub-specialization is harder to find outside an academic center. In addition, academic medical centers usually have the resources to have the latest and highest quality imaging technology—which is also very helpful in spine care.
A third benefit comes from the fact that some of the toughest cases are referred to academic centers. As a result, these physicians have more experience with the toughest problems and rarest complications, so that in the unlikely event you do experience a complication, they are very comfortable diagnosing and managing it to minimize any long-term impact on your outcome.
Most of these and other advantages of an academic medical center typically go on behind the scenes, which is probably why so few people truly understand the difference.
How have you benefitted from spine treatment in an academic medical center? We welcome your questions and feedback in the comments section below.
About Dr. Boden
Scott D. Boden, MD, Director of the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, is an internationally renowned surgeon, lecturer, and teacher and the driving force behind the Emory University Orthopedics and Spine Hospital (EUOSH). Dr. Boden started practicing at Emory in 1992.