Why spine surgery?
“Spine surgery has an appealing and somewhat unique set of characteristics. There is a great deal we have yet to understand about spine-related disorders, making the practice and research of spine care both challenging and dynamic. The vast majority of people will experience significant spine-related symptoms at some point. The ability to improve the quality of many lives makes spine surgery relevant. Contemporary spine surgery is also heavily technology dependent, which makes for interesting operations from a procedural standpoint. So, a rapidly evolving field that can have a large positive impact for many people while using power tools and a microscope? Sign me up!”
What’s the life of a surgeon like?
“One way to look at life as a surgeon is as an ongoing effort to create order. In the office, patients present an often chaotic set of unfiltered data: history, symptoms, test results, examination findings, and patient preferences. The surgeon’s job is essentially to distill this diverse information into a diagnosis and treatment plan. In the operating room, the process is reversed. At the outset, things are very well defined. You have a thorough understanding of the problem and a surgical plan to address it. Your job is to execute that plan with as little variation as possible. The ‘same way, every time’ is the mantra of the surgeon. Once the operation begins, however, the unique attributes of the patient invariably assert themselves. The further into the operation, the greater the tension between order and variation. The goal, of course, is to help order win.”
What are the best and most challenging parts of the job?
“I think most surgeons would agree that the most satisfying part of this job is the ability to improve the lives of others in a meaningful way. For spine surgeons, this most often involves alleviating pain and improving function. But this is also where the challenge comes in. Identifying the right procedure for the right patient is not straightforward in a surprising number of cases. Unfortunately, not everyone is a surgical candidate. This is perhaps the most difficult message to convey.”
Why was having both an MD [Hwang graduated from Harvard Medical School in 2003] and an MBA from HBS important to you?
“Well, the MD helped me get licensed to practice medicine, which was an important step toward being a spine surgeon. And while I’ve probably been a little more business-minded than the average doctor, it was actually my time at HBS that helped me realize an interest in entrepreneurship. But in general, the MBA helps me be a more effective professional; many of the frameworks and concepts that we were exposed to at HBS can be applied to problems in health care and medicine. As an industry, we face the same fundamental challenges, just with the addition of some special regulatory and market characteristics.”
How do you use what you learned at HBS in your roles as a spine surgeon and as medical director of the KishHealth Spine Center?
“It’s remarkable how often I use HBS-derived knowledge, particularly since medicine is not a traditional MBA career track. From assessing the financial status of a medical practice to negotiating strategic hospital partnerships, I’ve found myself in a number of fairly foreign situations related to these roles. Luckily, I managed to navigate them well, and with relative comfort and competence, thanks to my HBS experience.”
What was your first cold call like?
“Totally nailed it—when I did it over again in my head later that night.”
Who was your favorite HBS professor, and why?
“As banal as it sounds, how do you pick just one? I think Professor Frances Frei had the biggest impact on my learning. At a time when we were all trying to figure out this whole HBS thing, Prof. Frei was instrumental in guiding us toward our section identity. I think this created a more effective group dynamic that enabled us to get more out of ourselves and each session. Also, TOM was interesting.”
What advice would you give doctors considering attending HBS?
“The learning environment at HBS rewards engagement. The case method will feel unfamiliar, but embrace it. Rather than focusing on how the material at hand might be useful to you in the future, whatever your plans are, participate fully in the experience of understanding that material. Doing so facilitates the kind of deeper learning that allows for a more natural application of that knowledge when needed. And chances are, the same interests that brought you to HBS will lead you to opportunities where that knowledge will be useful.”
In an alternate universe, Harvard and MIT are playing against each other in football. Who do you root for [Hwang also holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from MIT]?
“I like rooting for the underdog. Go Harvard!”
Can you finish this statement? “A great spine surgeon is…”
“…reflective and patient.”
Follow Raymond Hwang on Twitter at https://twitter.com/hwamond.