Navigating the learning curve of spinal endoscopy as an established traditionally trained spine surgeon

Nicholas A. Ransom, Sohrab Gollogly, Kai-Uwe Lewandrowski, Anthony Yeung


Background: Traditionally trained spine surgeons may want to transition from open spinal surgeries to endoscopic decompressions. The aspiring endoscopic spine surgeon may have to overcome multiple hurdles to master a learning curve without readily available training. Replacing traditional time-proven open spinal surgeries with endoscopic decompression may put the surgeons’ reputation at risk and have an additional negative impact on his or her practice due to reduced revenue. The authors report on the utility of the mentor- and proctorship concepts to facilitate the transition from traditional open to endoscopic outpatient spine surgeries.
Methods: The study population (learning curve groups) was provided by two traditionally trained “apprentice” surgeons who have been in practice for 12 and 28 years, respectively. They trained with the remaining two authors under mentorship and proctorship arrangements. A VAS and Macnab outcomes analysis was performed by one surgeon laminectomy versus endoscopy in relationship to the case log representative of the initial learning curve. The second surgeon performed a postoperative narcotic utilization analysis as a representative way of favorable clinical outcomes in relation to his increasing case log with spinal endoscopy.
Results: The learning curve study by the first author (NA Ransom-under the proctorship program) consisted of 40 patients with 20 patients each divided into the traditional laminectomy control group and 20 patients in the endoscopic group. There were 22 females and 18 males with an average age of 57.38 years and a mean follow-up of 38.58 months. The preoperative VAS for patients in both groups was 7.95 compared to the postoperative VAS at final follow-up of 4.01 with a statistically significant postoperative VAS reduction (P<0.001) but without any significant difference between open laminectomy control- and endoscopic decompression groups. The endoscopic learning curve group outcomes improved significantly after 15 cases (P<0.048). The second author (S Gollogly-under mentorship program) performed a similar review of his surgical cases log and noted a significant reduction of postoperative narcotic utilization as a result of improved outcomes after an initial learning curve of 15 cases. Clinical outcomes for both authors showed improved Macnab outcomes in the majority of patients (NA Ransom =65%; S Gollogly =57%) with a slightly higher success rate in the laminectomy group (70%) versus the endoscopy group (65%) at a statistical significant level (P=0.036).
Conclusions: The mentorship and proctorship approach is useful in helping traditionally trained spine surgeons to integrate spinal endoscopy into their well-established spine practices. Under the close guidance of an endoscopic master spine surgeon, the endoscopic learning curve may be comprehended by the experienced traditionally trained spine surgeon in approximately 15 lumbar decompression cases. During this initial 15-case learning curve, clinical outcomes with endoscopy may be slightly inferior to open laminectomy but may ultimately improve to equivalent levels.