North American Spine Society incoming president Dr. John Finkenberg on advocating for patients and mentoring young physicians


John Finkenberg, MD, has served on the North American Spine Society Advocacy Council for six years; he also serves as the first vice president on the board of directors and works as an associate editor for the Spine Journal on top of running his own San Diego-based practice. 

Dr. Finkenberg is next in the line of succession to assume the role of president for the 2023 year. 

He connected with Becker's recently to discuss his years of advocacy and mentoring experience through NASS and beyond. 

When Dr. Finkenberg began working with NASS, a society with 8,000 members, he served on the advocacy committee, which he has built into the advocacy counsel. 

"I put in 12 years with NASS and started off on the bottom, on a committee. I put in a little extra effort and then I got to direct the committee. I think the thing I am most proud of in my efforts is creating a very robust advocacy counsel," Dr. Finkenberg told Becker's. "We're known on [Capitol] Hill; I travel out there three or four times a year, and I feel very proud when I can walk into a legislator's office and they say, 'Hi, John.'" 

The NASS advocacy counsel works with legislators to lobby for the best interests of not just physicians and surgeons, but for their patients, Dr. Finkenberg said. 

"If we can get patients the care they deserve, that benefits everyone in the end," he said. "I want us to be able to advocate aggressively for our patients and our colleagues in Washington. I want to be aggressive with our ability to get in front of legislators and let them understand what is happening. It is important to talk about how you can benefit patients. It shows your interest in improving their healthcare. Even more so, these are their constituents and they will be voting for them. If they can't make healthcare work optimally, they won't get the votes they want." 

On top of advocacy, Dr. Finkenberg has goals for the society as first vice president and future president. 

"The key for NASS and its future is to create opportunities for outcome data collection," he said. "If we can stimulate that through research and sending papers into the Spine Journal, that is what is going to help us create a better environment for healthcare policy. If we can't do that, it's going to be very difficult, and we probably will not be successful. 

"In past years, we've talked about how the industry says NASS isn't working for them and all that kind of thing. That was really NASS in the past. The current board of directors understand the relationship. We know it can be done ethically and professionally. We have to continue to support each other because that is what is going to allow us to put on these educational opportunities. That is a big concern of mine. I want the industry to know I am a big supporter of them." 

Dr. Finkenberg is also passionate about helping younger spine surgeons make their way into the field. He mentors younger physicians and helps create NASS panels geared to practitioners who have been in the field for five years or fewer. 

NASS also runs a spine fellowship program Dr. Finkenberg plans to build on. He hopes to continue to show younger members of the organization why professional societies remain important, from education and research to networking opportunities. 

"We talk about career development and leadership, we network with industry leaders, we work with having the insurers understand how the equipment they are making is really advantageous to the patient in decreasing costs and improving their health," he said. "Those things couldn't be done without having a society as large as we are, as many volunteers, and quite a large staff that makes this happen. We started an early career advisory panel and were excited to get those younger members in." 

On top of mentoring through NASS, Dr. Finkenberg is proud of the work he does with young surgeons at his own California practice. 

"It's hard, both having a practice and being a part of NASS. I tell people, do what I did: Get out and work with the industry, understand how hard it is to get FDA clearance and come up with new products, and try to push innovation, but do it in an ethical and evidence-based way," he said. "Commit the last part of your career to doing more volunteer work and trying to make things better for colleagues. I am a big fan of mentoring, and I try to send resources along. Whenever I do an educational talk, I'll give them things I wish I didn't do in the past and things I'm happy to be doing now. If we pass information along to younger doctors, it only helps our patients." 

His own practice is focused not only on helping to train and mentor younger surgeons, but on teaching them how to perform with and without new industry aids, including robots and artificial intelligence. 

"If AI or robotics can help us be more precise or think of something we haven't thought of, that would be great. However, I am a big believer in teaching doctors how to be good doctors. If they can learn techniques and surgery without extra electronics, I know they'll pick up everything else quickly," he said. "And they'll also know when the robotics may not be right. I've used some CT scan guidance for placement of instrumentation and I'll know when it's just not right. I've been there a lot, and I know it won't work like the machine is telling me. That's the background I want young doctors to have. I want them to know when to say, 'No, I'm going to do that a different way.'" 

Dr. Finkenberg is a strong advocate for the growth of NASS, and he said its expansion will be crucial for spine surgeons as younger physicians join the society and continue to grow its advocacy efforts. 

"You realize many things we do can't be done by single individuals," he said. "It takes a huge supporting NASS staff, colleagues and volunteers and communication between us all to decide what the next directions are. I think teamwork is going to give us the outcome we're looking for."

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