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UCI Health: Uplifting Excellence, Transforming Healthcare

UCI Health
UCI Health

Advancing a healthcare institution requires a team of skilled and dedicated medical professionals. This challenging sector demands constant innovation integrated with the adoption of the latest technologies. Truly innovative healthcare systems go beyond delivering satisfactory service and strive to push the boundaries to offer the highest quality care. This is what makes a healthcare establishment stand out, and this is what defines UCI Health, the clinical enterprise of the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

Welcome to the world of groundbreaking spine surgery, where precision meets innovation and patient care is elevated to an art form. UCI Health is not just a medical institution; it’s an academic health system that sets the standards for the future. Comprising UCI Medical Center and a growing network of ambulatory care sites, UCI Health is renowned for its expertise in areas such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, and women’s health.

Dr. Nitin N. Bhatia, a UCI Health orthopaedic surgeon and Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in the UCI School of Medicine, is at the forefront of excellence in spine surgery. A luminary in the field, Dr. Bhatia’s accolades and research achievements speak volumes about his dedication to advancing spine surgery.

Joining him in the pursuit of excellence is Dr. Michael Y. Oh, a distinguished neurosurgeon at UCI Health and the Department of Neurological Surgery, UCI School of Medicine. Dr. Oh specializes in spine disorders, stereotactic and functional neurosurgery, particularly for movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. With over 26 years of experience, Dr. Oh is not just a board-certified neurosurgeon; he is a visionary shaping the future of neurosurgery.

In our exclusive interaction with Dr. Bhatia and Dr. Oh, we explore the complex world of spine surgery and the leading role UCI Health plays in offering innovative solutions.

Get enlightened as we dive into the world of exemplary service, where UCI Health is charting the course for the future of spine surgery.

Advancing Healthcare Through Discovery, Education and Healing

UCI Health is dedicated to advancing healthcare through scientific discovery, clinical innovation and a laser focus on the best patient experience. Our institution’s mission, Discover. Teach. Heal. underscores the UCI Health commitment to multifaceted excellence.

Within the UCI School of Medicine, the mission is to ‘deliver accessible, patient-centered healthcare of the highest caliber while training compassionate, visionary and innovative clinicians and researchers.’

Upholding a strategic vision that aims to ‘bring personalized, leading-edge care to you and our community, to be the best place to give and get care,’ UCI Health stands at the forefront of healthcare institutions.

Dr. Bhatia, an integral UCI Health leader, emphasizes, “As the only academic medical center in Orange County, Calif., and a region of nearly four million people, UCI Health provides the highest-level care to our community while also discovering future treatments and techniques, while educating future healthcare providers.”

Revolutionizing Spine Surgery

In the last 20 years, UCI Health has been a leader in the rapid evolution in spine surgery techniques and technologies, leading innovations that enhance patient care. Dr. Bhatia stresses the institution’s commitment to cutting-edge technology: “10 years ago, we opened a state-of-the-art hospital in the city of Orange and will open an additional medical campus in Irvine over the next two years. An outpatient care center and a hospital with acute care are scheduled to open in 2024 and 2025, respectively. Both campuses are committed to the most advanced technologies available, including robotic spine surgery and 3D intraoperative navigation.” UCI Health surgeons have pioneered techniques like endoscopic spine surgery and laminoplasty surgery, elevating the reliability, safety, and effectiveness of spine surgery compared to previous methods.

A Multidisciplinary Approach

“The UCI Health Comprehensive Spine Center stands out as one of the few multidisciplinary spine centers in the country,” Dr. Bhatia says. This distinctive center brings together a team of dedicated experts from various fields, encouraging a collaborative environment aimed at achieving a singular mission: to enhance the lives of both current and future generations of patients.

The Comprehensive Spine Center’s unique strength lies in its diverse roster, including orthopaedic spine surgeons, neurosurgeons, radiologists, pain management physicians, neurologists, integrative health experts, physical therapists, and scientists. This collective expertise forms a dynamic and interactive group working cohesively towards the common goal of improving patient outcomes and advancing the field of spine care.

Dr. Bhatia’s Path to Leadership in Spine Surgery

Dr. Bhatia’s distinguished professional journey has been shaped by an outstanding educational background and significant experiences that have culminated in his current role as Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, UCI School of Medicine, and chief of the spine service for the university’s health system, UCI Health, where he has dedicated almost two decades of service.

Reflecting on his journey, Dr. Bhatia shares, “The path to my role was highly influenced by the mentors I had during training and the experiences I had with them.” His educational foundation includes undergraduate studies at Stanford University, medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, and orthopaedic surgery residency training at UCLA. He further enhanced his skills through a combined orthopaedic surgery and neurosurgery fellowship at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Dr. Bhatia attributes much of his success to his invaluable experiences working alongside pioneers in modern spine surgery during his training at UCLA and the University of Miami. “Besides being amazing surgeons, they were also amazing people, compassionate physicians, and tremendous educators,” he says.

The profound impact of these mentors expanded Dr. Bhatia’s perspective on the role of a surgeon. “Seeing that being a good surgeon is far beyond just being a good technician inspired me to pursue a career in academic medicine,” he says. In his current role, he considers himself blessed to perform surgery, engage in groundbreaking research, and contribute to the education of the next generation of physicians.

Balancing Skill and Compassion

Dr. Bhatia takes great pride in his role as a spine surgeon. “As spine surgeons, we are blessed to be able to help people on their path to a healthy, pain-free life, and we must remember this on a daily basis,” he says. His perspective goes beyond the technical aspects, highlighting the importance of compassion, communication, and thoughtfulness in the domain of spine surgery.

Dr. Bhatia emphasizes that being a spine surgeon is not just about technical expertise; it’s about understanding the patient’s journey and the complexities of their condition. “Spine surgeons should be great technicians, of course, but we must also be compassionate, communicative, and thoughtful,” he says. “We have to be able to identify who we can help and what we can or cannot solve.”

“In my work,” Dr. Bhatia continues, “I strive to make sure that every patient is treated like they are our most important patient, because they each are.”

His dedication is further evident in the thorough preparation for surgery. Each case is reviewed with particular attention to detail, ensuring an individualized approach that recognizes the uniqueness of each patient’s situation. He acknowledges the honor and massive responsibility that comes with taking care of patients, emphasizing, “We treat it as such.”

A Global Pioneer in Advancing Spine Surgery Research

The UCI Health commitment to advancing the field is evident through research initiatives covering diverse aspects of spine care.

Dr. Bhatia emphasizes, “We perform research throughout the spectrum of spine care,” showcasing UCI Health’s expansive approach. This includes delving into non-traditional integrative care, exploring avenues for spinal cord injury repair, investigating regenerative medicine applications, and actively participating in clinical trials for pioneering procedures and implants.

The impact of UCI Health’s research efforts is significant. “UCI Health research has led to the development of new techniques and technologies to make spine surgery better and to also help patients avoid surgery,” he says. This underlines the institution’s dual commitment to enhancing the efficacy of spine surgery while also seeking innovative solutions to potentially spare patients from unnecessary surgical interventions.

Dr. Oh’s Venture in Spine Care

In contrast to the dramatized portrayals of neurosurgeons in movies and television shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Oh points out the reality that “most neurosurgeons do more spine surgery than brain surgery.” His personal journey reflects the practical experiences gained during residency training at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where a significant focus was placed on spine surgery. After completing an Internship in surgery at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa., he did a research fellowship in stereotactic and functional neurosurgery at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. He then completed a neurosurgery residency at Allegheny General Hospital, where he served as chief resident.

Dr. Oh’s professional trajectory took an unexpected turn during his first academic job in Missouri. He found himself thrust into the role of director of spine, a position necessitated by the departure of two other spine surgeons from the university of Missouri just before his arrival. This rapid assumption of responsibility brought with it a profound appreciation for the intricacies of complex decision-making and the rapid technological advancements occurring in the field of spine surgery.

“Since then, and especially here at UCI Health,” Dr. Oh states, “I have focused on improving spine care by concentrating on programmatic subspecialty development to meet the triple mission to discover, teach, and heal.”

Dr. Oh’s Perspective on Staying Ahead

In the field of neurosurgery, Dr. Oh imparts a valuable insight, stating, “The best way to stay up-to-date is to constantly ask yourself, ‘Is there a better way?’” This simple yet profound question, often reserved for times of surgical complications, holds even greater significance when everything is running smoothly.

He emphasizes the critical nature of regularly posing this question. “If you aren’t asking ‘Is there a better way?’ on a regular basis, you are likely providing good care but are not contributing to progress in your specialized field.” This perspective underscores the importance of continuous improvement and the role of questioning in fostering innovation and advancement.

At the UCI Health Comprehensive Spine Center, Dr. Oh sets a high standard. “‘Good enough’ is not good enough,” he says. This commitment to excellence reflects the center’s dedication to expanding the boundaries of care and ensuring that every aspect of neurosurgery meets the highest standards.

Commitment to Excellence at UCI Health

At UCI Health, the principle of “First do no harm” transcends being a mere oath; it is a mantra ingrained in the ethos of this academic medical center. Dr. Oh affirms, “Not only do we tend to provide the most advanced care in the region, but we also provide very conservative care.” This commitment is reflected in the cautious approach taken, where invasive procedures and surgery are considered only after exhausting other multidisciplinary avenues.

The comprehensive spine center at UCI Health further exemplifies this commitment to patient well-being. Dedicated programs address spine tumors, deformities and trauma, ensuring that individuals with these conditions receive treatment from a team recognized as the best of the best.

Dr. Oh sheds light on the center’s emphasis on specialization, stating, “We also have subspecialty programs in endoscopic, robotic, and minimally invasive spine surgery that are each run by leaders in their field.” This strategic focus on subspecialty programs not only signifies expertise but also highlights a commitment to offering patients the latest advancements and the highest standards of care.

Charting the Future

As the landscape of spine surgery evolves, Dr. Oh envisions a paradigm shift. “The future of spine surgery is to look at the whole spine patient and not just the surgery they may need at the end of an algorithm,” he says. Emphasizing a comprehensive approach, he envisions a future where spine surgeons become integral members of the primary care team, particularly for back and neck pain—the leading cause of lifetime disability worldwide.

Dr. Oh’s forward-looking perspective extends to the growing presence of artificial intelligence and robotic assistance in many aspects of medical and surgical care. “UCI Health is preparing for an AI-driven, robotic-assisted world where patient-centered and physician-directed care will become even more important,” he says. As healthcare continues to transform, UCI Health continues to stay at the forefront to bring promising new therapies to Orange County patients and beyond.

To learn more about the UCI Health Comprehensive Spine Center, please call 714-695-5633 or visit ucihealth.org/spine-care.

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