By: 25 January 2024
Surgeon in Focus Q&A with Raluca Reitmeir

Raluca Reitmeir is Consultant of Neurosurgery, at the Department of Spine Surgery, Schulthess Clinic.

She finished her neurosurgical specialisation in 2018 and received the advanced studies certificate in spine surgery (SGNC and SO) in 2021. In 2022 she also got the qualification for advanced studies certificate in interventional pain medicine in Switzerland (SSIPM Diploma).  

Beside these qualifications in spine surgery and interventional pain medicine, she successfully accomplished the Said University Oxford Diploma in women`s leadership program in 2022. She recently spoke at the Women in Spine event, held in Switzerland in September 2023. 

In the research field she accomplished a MD at Medical University of Vienna, Austria in 2007 (Grade A), Master of Science 2009 (M. Sc.)  (Grade A) Faculty of Biology University Duisburg-Essen, Germany and a PhD Diploma with “Suma cum laudae” in 2013 Faculty of Biology University Duisburg-Essen, Germany.  

Her main specialization consists in operation of degenerative disease of the spine, tumor surgery, traumatic pathologies of the spine and neuromodulation with spinal cord stimulation for chronic pain management.  

She takes part in diverse lecturing activities for Neuromodulation companies to teach the young generation and recently for EuroSpine Society as a Faculty of the Educational Board and AO Spine Society in Switzerland. 


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

RR:  I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of the human body, especially of the neuroanatomy of the brain and spine. Being able to modulate this complexity and restore the anatomical and biological activity of these structures through surgery is the main purpose in my everyday work. I am very humble and thankful that I received the possibility to help people regain their neurological and mechanical functions and I acknowledge the responsibility that I have every day in the operation theatre.  


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

RR: I love that my job is “hands-on work with immediate and sustainable results”. I can find a solution for the patient and directly change the outcome of his quality of life. I also love that my patients trust me and allow me to find the perfect treatment or carry out an operation on them in order to help them cure. At the same time, I am aware of my responsibility once I enter in the operation room. 


SSN: … and the worst? 

RR: Surgery has a traditional role-model career, that implicates lack of flexibility in the working hours and a rigid hierarchic structure.  The work culture in surgical fields is still shaped on old values and does not reshape according to the actual needs of our society. Finding a balance between your professional and personal live is therefore rather difficult. There is progress to a more modern role-model, nevertheless there is plenty of headroom in developing new mindset. 


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

RR: There are of course academical highlights, like my PhD degree with “Suma cum laudae” and then the surgical career highlights by working with wonderful colleagues at Schulthess Klinik in Zürich, but if I had to choose a recent highlight, that would be my participation in the Women Spine Network in 2023.  

In the past two to three years, I did a lot of work on my own to understand and to change the culture of the surgical field in order to accept women in higher surgical positions and integrate them without positive discrimination or quota, by accepting them at the table and removing the glass ceiling from their career path. My participation in the Women Leadership Programme from Oxford University opened new frontiers and I realized that without the support that we give to each other from women to women, but also from men to women, we cannot overcome these barriers. 


SSN: Are you currently involved in any research or work with emerging technologies? 

RR:  Yes, at the Schulthess Klinik I am responsible for the Neuromodulation therapies. As a lot of operated spine patients suffer from chronical pain syndrome, we want to increase their quality of life as much as possible. I am therefore the responsible person for evaluating if these patients can be eligible for the Neurostimulation programme, which is like a pacemaker for the pain. It works really well but the tricky aspect is the selection criteria. Because of this, I founded an interdisciplinary pain board with different specialists at Schulthess Klinik in order to make the right decision for the patients.  

What we aim to achieve with neurostimulation is to reverse unnecessary surgeries. Often, even after a patient has undergone surgery, they remain dissatisfied, experiencing ongoing pain without a clear cause identified by the surgeon. Consequently, there’s a decision to reoperate on the patient, in the hope of discovering an overlooked factor or another segment contributing to the pain. It’s at this junction that we recognize the inadequacy of the initial procedure. 

We present the patient’s case in board meetings, thoroughly discussing all possibilities. If the patient qualifies, we opt for a neurostimulation intervention. Typically, patients respond positively as they can sidestep the need for a new operation. The potential to work with greater specificity for each patient and enhance these outcomes holds significant implications, not only for the healthcare industry but also for the overall medical care system. This is what I aim to standardise in Switzerland. 


SSN: Tell us more about the Women in Spine event you recently spoke at? How important is it to inspire and educate women using this platform? 

RR: I truly believe that women and men should complement each other. Men contribute significantly to the surgical field, leveraging their strengths and perspectives. However, the importance of the women’s perspective is growing, particularly in reducing the number of surgeries, minimising revisions, and enhancing the overall quality of life. This underscores the importance of teaching and implementing mentorship programs for women. 

During the meeting, I emphasised the significance of mentorship and leadership, both being needed to assert the visibility for women. Women often tend to be reserved, working diligently in the background rather than asserting themselves. We must guide each other to find solutions that improve our quality of life. While aspiring to be surgeons, we also need to acknowledge our limits, avoid the overworking tendencies seen in previous generations and make sure that we are able to face challenges such as lack of proper childcare or not being able to work flexible hours. Teaching these aspects to the next generation is crucial, which is why mentorship and leadership play pivotal roles in enabling us to reach our full potential. I personally have been fortunate to have strong support at home but not everyone has this privilege. Consequently, I’ve observed many colleagues, who started their journey with me, but transitioning to conservative pain medicine or other medical fields due to the insurmountable challenges in their careers – mostly stemming from a lack of solutions to these issues. Moreover, young students don’t as well have the opportunity to learn about this during their studies. Medical faculties should consider this and invest time in their programs, both for men and women to reduce the dropout rate which is 20-30% in residency and up to 50% in surgical specialties.  


SSN: How would you encourage more young women to choose career in STEM? 

RR: The most crucial aspect is not to fear choosing this career, as I believe many women aspire to pursue it but hesitate to even try. Secondly, it’s essential to seek assistance; don’t shy away from appearing vulnerable and expressing, “I need help. I don’t know how to progress, please assist me.” The key is to remain ambitious, know your aspirations, and actively pursue them. No one will hand success to you; you have to work diligently for it. We need to strive for our positions, although we can undoubtedly benefit from better support. 


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

RR: I would tell myself not to be afraid of visibility. When I started my journey in Romania, entering the medical system required a rigorous exam, and I took this exam with the highest grade from a total of 4000 students. Due to this recognition, I was invited to speak at various medical associations, and they offered me different political positions in order to represent the medical students. Back then, I believed I didn’t have time for such engagements and politics, I wanted to focus solely on my studies and avoid the complexities of self-marketing and visibility. 

Reflecting on that period now, I realize I possibly missed the chance to have a more remarkable impact, possibly influencing the system a bit more. At that time, I lacked the insight and was solely concentrated on my studies, unwilling to take on additional responsibilities in these facilities. This is something I wish I could have advised my past self and something I would now tell young students. Be more courageous, take that initial step, and showcase yourself positively. Strike a balance: don’t shine too brightly, but do your work competently and express your opinions. This is especially crucial for women, as we often excel in our work but refrain from showcasing ourselves to others. 


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

RR: I highly value my family quality time, especially once per year, embarking on extensive travels for 3 weeks. During this time, we prioritise family activities, allowing us to pause from work and recharge our batteries.  

Despite the current stress, I find solace in spending quality time with my son, engaging in activities like helping him with homework and discussing our day. I also have a passion for sports, particularly yoga and meditation. Additionally, I’m an avid reader, although my busy schedule doesn’t always permit me to indulge in books as much as I’d like. 


SSN: How do you think the future looks in the field of orthopaedic and spinal surgery and what are your predictions for 2024 and the next decade? 

RR: Answering this question is not straightforward, and I came across an interesting concept while preparing for my talk on career development – the idea of synergy. I believe this approach of complementing different aspects will be integral to the future of orthopedic and spine surgery. Creating synergy between men and women, as well as between work and family life, can yield positive results on both fronts. Achieving balance is key. 

I’m optimistic about the increasing acceptance for the better balance of gender for neurosurgery. I also hope that women are enhancing their character and visibility to assert themselves appropriately in this profession.  

From a medical perspective, my sincere hope is for a reduction in the revision surgery rate by thorough indication and proper patient selection which as well results in gaining life quality for our patients and a long term cost efficiency for the health system.   

In terms of medical infrastructure, I advocate for moving towards centralised spine centres, as opposed to multiple centres. This also aligns with political directions. I believe this development is crucial for the future, ensuring patients receive proper evaluations and high-quality operations when necessary.