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“Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident.”
P. J. Abdul Kalam

When I was in medical school, a question frequently asked by friends and family was, “How do you decide what kind of doctor to become?” I eventually developed an answer in the form of a metaphor: imagine you are at a gourmet ice cream shop. There is a wide variety of amazing flavors to choose from. The shopkeeper is very generous and gives you the opportunity to sample every flavor. However, at the end of this sampling, you can only leave the store with one flavor. And you have to eat that flavor of ice cream for the rest of your life.

Reactions to this metaphor vary — it may seem exciting to try the samples. It may seem fraught to make such a lasting decision based on a small sample size. It may seem like a very arbitrary way to determine a future career course in a highly specialized profession. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses in the decision to become a neurosurgeon, the process of becoming a neurosurgeon has, especially in recent years, not been left to chance.

Historically, surgical training was an advanced, multi-year apprenticeship. Trainees would identify a mentor from whom they would master the art and skill of surgery. Many surgical training programs were set up as a ‘pyramid’ with multiple trainees beginning a residency but only 1-2 completed, as the grueling nature of the work would naturally create attrition. This often inculcated a cutthroat culture where one ‘fatal’ mistake would result in dismissal. It’s no wonder that many surgeons developed an unrelenting mentality and personality that often endured long after they finished training.

The process of training neurosurgeons today has changed dramatically. Medicine, more broadly, and neurosurgery, in particular, have co-opted techniques from various industries to make residency a much more predictable, measurable and just educational experience. It is no longer sink-or-swim. Residency program directors have adopted innovations from education and quality science and industrial processes to create a more holistic training rubric that prepares neurosurgical trainees to thrive in 21st-century health care delivery systems. Surgeons can no longer be lone wolves doing their own thing; they must be captains of health care teams where teamwork and a just culture are the touchstones of patient care.

The training of neurosurgeons is not the only aspect of the process that has changed dramatically. The substrate of neurosurgical training is transforming as well. Returning to our ice cream metaphor, the ingredients of neurosurgical training are changing to reflect more completely the society in which we practice medicine. Neurosurgery has made it a key priority to recruit a more diverse body of trainees from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Because we work in teams and care for patients across the spectrum of society, our team members should more closely mirror that spectrum.

If I asked you to close your eyes and think of a neurosurgeon, you would probably conjure up a certain mental image (and please don’t tell me it’s Dr. McDreamy!). However, the old image reflects a way of training that is impractical and non-viable. Neurosurgery has rapidly adapted over the past few decades to create a new process to train the next generation of neurosurgeons. No process is perfect, but neurosurgical leaders realize that and so this process continues to evolve. Perfecting this process will never be completed, but the practice of reviewing and improving the process improves us not only as physicians and educators, but even more as people.

Editor’s Note: We hope you will share what you learn from our posts in the Making and Maintaining a Neurosurgeon series. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery and using the hashtag #Neurosurgery.

Kristopher T. Kimmell, MD, FAANS
Rochester Regional Health
Rochester, N.Y.

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