This interview with USC Spine Center Co-director Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Spine Surgery Today.
In this issue, Spine Surgery Today poses five questions to Jeffrey C. Wang, MD, co-director of the USC Spine Center, chief of the Orthopaedic Spine Service, and professor of orthopaedic surgery and neurosurgery at Keck Medicine of USC.
Dr. Wang’s research focus includes gene therapy and minimally invasive surgery for the treatment of spinal disorders, bone growth biological proteins and biomedical engineering of non-invasive spine surgery using high intensity focused ultrasonic waves. He is a member of numerous professional societies, including the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), Cervical Spine Research Society, North American Spine Society and the Scoliosis Research Society. He has won awards for his research including the fourth annual The Spine Journal Editors Choice Award for 2010’s top paper and the AAOS Achievement Award in 2010.
Dr. Wang graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He completed his internship at the UCLA School of Medicine and a residency in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at University of California, Los Angeles. He also completed a fellowship in spine surgery at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Spine Surgery Today: What are your hobbies outside of practicing medicine?
Jeffrey C. Wang, MD: The busier I become with surgeries, patient care and research, I have learned to truly value the time outside of the hospital. Life is too short to not enjoy life when you can. I have always been an athlete, so I enjoy sporting activities. I try to run or incorporate some type of aerobic exercise every day, and lift weights or perform core-strengthening exercises every other day. I play basketball twice a week with long-time friends, which always brings out the competitive spirit that lies within all of us. We advise our patients to stay active and healthy, so I try to practice what we preach. I firmly believe that one should try to be as healthy as possible. The older I get, the more I value leading an active life in general.
Spine Surgery Today: Who has had the greatest influence on your career?
Wang: Without a doubt, my father has had the greatest impact on my career. My father grew up in a poor farming community in the middle of rural China. No one in his family was educated, so when he was 14 years old, he left home with his father carrying their crops on their backs and walked to the nearest town. They sold the crops and his father gave him all the money he had, and then he said goodbye. He would never see his father or mother again. He started with nothing but eventually landed here in the United States, where he earned his degree and began teaching at a small college in West Virginia, where I grew up. When I realize what he had sacrificed in order to achieve his goals, and what challenges he faced, it immediately puts things into perspective for me. No matter what problems I face in my life, nothing can ever compare to the barriers he had to overcome. And, whenever I think of him, I am inspired. I have had the pleasure of learning from some of the greatest surgeons in spine surgery and have interacted with amazing people from all over the world, but no one’s influence has had greater impact on my life than my father’s.
Spine Surgery Today: What area of research in spine surgery most interests you right now? Why?
Wang: The area of biologics and basic science is the most interesting area of spine surgery today. Currently, there is considerable controversy regarding the biological treatment of spinal disorders and we are only scratching the surface of our understanding of disc biology and regeneration. However, I firmly believe that the major advances in spine surgery for the future lie in our basic science research. Through ongoing research into the basics of the development of spinal problems, we gain an understanding of how the spine becomes problematic and understand how we can fix it on a long-term basis. I feel this will happen through our basic science research in disc biology and spinal fusion. The ultimate goal is to find ways to let patients live without pain or prevent further degeneration, which can be achieved by intervening in a disease pathway on a cellular level.
Spine Surgery Today: What advice would you offer a medical school student today?
Wang: Medical students today are the physicians of the future. We need to ensure that the best and brightest students continue to go into medicine and not into business, investing or finance. With all the changes in health care, some students are beginning to avoid the medical field. If you are among those who have doubts, please don’t become discouraged. I ask that you remember the fundamental reason why physicians become physicians: to help people. Medicine is the most rewarding job in the world, with so many opportunities to help people. The world is a smaller place with the Internet and physicians can benefit so many more patients now than we could in the past. One single research discovery or new treatment can change the world for the better. There is an old saying that one person can make a difference. As a physician, you make a difference every single day.
Spine Surgery Today: What is up next for you?
Wang: The most immediate task for me is to help develop the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles. We have assembled a top team of spine surgeons, spine practitioners and researchers, and our goal is to have one of the top spine training programs in the country. We are already training a number of neurosurgical and orthopaedic residents, medical students and international surgeons. As our program grows, we are establishing ourselves as a center of excellence. I am delighted that the University of Southern California has given us such tremendous support to enable us to accomplish our vision. Besides medicine, teaching is my passion. Looking to the future, I hope to continue teaching not only on a local level within the university, but expand my efforts to a global level. Over the past 7 years, I have realized that advances in spine treatments need to be disseminated on a worldwide basis, and that there are some regions and countries where spine surgery education is very much needed. I have been increasingly involved in international spine education through various leading academic spine societies, working on international initiatives to help educate spine surgeons globally, and develop a spine curriculum that can help standardize the basics of spine care.