By: 18 January 2018
Surgeon Focus –  Bob Chatterjee

This issue we speak to another of our consultant editors. Bob Chatterjee is a consultant spinal surgeon specialising in spinal trauma, spinal problems in the elderly and minimally invasive keyhole spinal surgery. He is based at Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust (Barnet & Chase Farm Hospitals) and recently became President of Orthopaedics at The Royal Society of Medicine.


SSN: As a specialist in spine surgery, could you tell us more about your experience and training background in this field?

BC: Training in spinal surgery is a long and arduous process.  After I qualified from medical school at Guys & St Thomas’s Hospital, London, I spent seven years training as a junior doctor in London and Oxford, including research at The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, Stanmore, gaining a distinction with my thesis. I then underwent specialist orthopaedic training in London for a further five years and then two years training in pure spinal surgery including neurosurgery at Norwich and Cambridge before I was appointed as a consultant in spinal surgery at The Royal Free Hospitals NHS Trust. An awfully long time at school but absolutely worth it!


SSN: What drove you to choose surgery as a career – and spinal surgery in particular?

BC: Spinal surgery is different from other surgical specialities in my view. It is part art and part science in two respects. First, the discipline has not yet fully evolved. There are many unanswered questions and many different ways of approaching the same problem. That makes you think in depth about each and every patient and it allows you to innovate methods of solving difficulties encountered in spinal surgery. Also, you have to enjoy talking to people and have empathy. Symptoms in the spine aren’t easy to distinguish and are often attributable to many different causes. I can honestly say no two patients are the same, even if they have the same nominal diagnosis.


SSN: What’s the best part of your job?

BC: People sometimes come with little or no hope and you can sometimes make a huge difference to their lives. Not many are fortunate enough to be able to have that effect on people.


SSN: … and the worst?

BC: Sometimes you can do a technically perfect job but you can still get complications. That’s spinal surgery. You can do everything by the book and still get into trouble. Explaining that to patients is very difficult.


SSN: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

BC: Recently I became President of Orthopaedics at The Royal Society of Medicine, I was most honoured.


SSN: If you weren’t a spine surgeon what would you be?

BC: A snooker player! I was quite good in my younger years and none other than Steve Davis said I had a bright career ahead of me. But my dad was having none of it.


SSN: What would you tell your 21-year-old self?

BC: Aim for the top. Don’t get weighed down by doubts about your background, ethnicity, religion or other people telling you what you can and can’t be. It’s all about desire and hard work, but always stick to your principles.


SSN: If you were Health Minister for the day what changes would you implement?

BC: I want the NHS to be managed for the long-term independently, rather like the Bank of England which is free from political interference. It so often feels like a political football kicked around every four years for a general election. Thus politicians won’t take the longer term decisions necessary for future prosperity but rather the short, cheap fixes to bolster their own short-term election prospects.


SSN: Away from the clinic and operating theatre – what do you do to relax?

BC: Family and sport. Although my wife and I are both orthopaedic surgeons we try not to talk about work at home. Spending time with our two young daughters is brilliant for that. They have worlds of their own and it’s a great distraction from the problems of work. When I’m on my own I love playing golf and am a new convert to cycling.


SSN: How do you think the future looks in the field of spine surgery?

BC: Troubled times ahead I’m afraid. The NHS budgets for spinal surgery are contracting which limits treatment options. From my conversations with my friends in the industry, times are also more difficult which makes me wonder about the innovation and education that the industry drives. But these are challenges that we will have to overcome together.


Mr Bob Chatterjee is a full time consultant spinal surgeon practising in London. He qualified from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, London, before undertaking surgical training in Oxford. His clinical and research interests include minimal access spinal surgery, adult deformity surgery and the biomechanics of lumbar fusion. One of his major passions is teaching and his commitments range from lecturing internationally to SpR training on several London teaching programmes. He is an active member of the British Association of Spinal Surgeons residing on both education and research committees.


If you are interested in taking part in our Surgeon Focus feature and would like to share your thoughts on the spinal surgery industry, we would love to hear from you. Please email us at