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7 Ways Neurosurgery Leaders Can Deliver Excellence and Innovation

By Steven L. Giannotta, MD
Chair of Neurological Surgery
Keck Medicine of USC

As chair of neurological surgery at Keck Medicine of USC for 20 years, I have identified several advancements in technology and research have created exciting opportunities to understand and treat complex diseases in ways never before possible.

This flood of new ideas creates a challenge for neurosurgical leaders who must meet this innovation with fresh strategies for resourcing cutting-edge programs and retaining prized faculty and staff — while still tackling the demands of hiring, strategic planning, goal setting, philanthropy and administrative duties.

As chair of Keck Medicine of USC’s Department of Neurological Surgery for 20 years, I have identified several strategies for keeping my department ahead of the innovation curve and delivering effective leadership.

  1.       Establish a reputation of cutting-edge excellence

To treat the most complex neurological cases, you need to provide equally complex services done by the most accomplished surgeons.

Prospective patients must know that you have a department of subspecialists who are at the top of their game — and who contribute to the latest and greatest treatments, either through their practice or research.

  1.       Create opportunities for your experts to collaborate

In any department, but especially a large one like ours, seek to organize your subspecialists into an entity — such as our new USC Cerebrovascular Center — that can foster and provide new treatment developments.

By merging your experts into an entity of medical doctors, surgeons and research scientists, you can serve as a catalyst for communication and coordination of care at the highest level, while also pushing the envelope on new treatments.

  1.       Make recruitment and retention a constant focus

Once you’ve established a strong reputation, you will have no shortage of interest from surgeons who want to work in your department. By creating a productive, supportive and collaborative environment, you can better understand who will fit perfectly with your team.

Still, the hardest part of my job is retention of my surgeons and physician subspecialists, who all want to be chairs of departments someday. I must be sure they are on track for career growth within our system — because if they aren’t, then I’m not doing my job.

  1.       Hire employees who want to be change agents

One of the major innovations these days is the ability to manipulate the genome. We have more and more tools to figure out the molecular underpinnings of disease — gene splicing, genetic interposition techniques and so forth. Despite their busy clinical schedules, our USC Brain Tumor Center faculty all have funded laboratories dedicated to using these tools to devise better treatments for brain malignancies. 

I have also recently recruited team members who use artificial intelligence to create new techniques for treating brain cancer. Successes in our department will spawn other applications for AI. The hard part for everyone will be figuring out how to harness AI and use it for legitimate scientific advantages.

5. Utilize resource structures to facilitate innovation

When you have superior surgeons and scientists in your department, new ideas will pop up all the time. Neurosurgery leaders must figure out how to implement those ideas into their systems and get them resourced.

Again, by building centers focused on amalgamated concepts, such as neurorestoration or treatment of brain tumors, you can facilitate structures for innovation with support from your organization.

6. Bring multiple areas of expertise into your department

By incorporating neurologists and critical care professionals into the framework of my neurosurgery department, I can facilitate quality of care, patient safety and physician satisfaction.

This care model ensures that the responsibility of treating our patients falls on a team of caregivers. When my physicians go home, they don't have to worry about their patient because they know they've got trusted colleagues delivering seamless care. 

7. Support a culture of open communication

My faculty are very free with their personal cell phone numbers. If you refer a patient to us, even if it’s your first time referring to Keck Medicine, you’ll get to talk to the neurosurgeon personally. Our people are so motivated to give good care and to grow their practice that they'll sacrifice a little bit of their privacy to make sure referring physicians know how to get in contact with them.

Internally, when my employees come to me with a problem, I want to hear their thoughts about a potential solution. Neurosurgery is very difficult, and if it’s not fun to come to work, then you’re either in the wrong profession or the wrong workplace. I want to create open lines of communication, so people know I have their back.