Dr. Anthony Yeung
Spine surgeon Dr. Anthony Yeung donated $2.5 million to develop a new endoscopic surgical center at UNM Hospital.
Credit: Desert Institute for Spine Care

A state-of-the-art, minimally invasive approach to spine disorders is coming to UNM Hospital, thanks to a $2.5 million donation from a spine surgery pioneer.

The Dr. Anthony T. and Eileen K. Yeung Endoscopic Spine Center at UNM Hospital will be part of the Interdisciplonary Center for Spine Health, according to  Dr. J. Fred Harrington, assistant professor of neurosurgery and the director of the new endoscopic surgical center.

Dr. Anthony Yeung and his wife, Eileen, made the donation earlier this year. Dr. Yeung, who lives in Arizona and practices at the Desert Institute for Spine Care in Phoenix, attended the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. In the 1990s, Yeung developed an FDA-approved endoscopically guided laser spine technique complemented by the creation of his surgical tools that have been credited with revolutionizing spine care. Yeung began working with UNM faculty in October.

“Their gift makes way for a more coordinated manner of treatment than ever before,” said Harrington. “Both patients and surgeons will have more choices.”

Clinics will initially be situated at UNM Hospital's Neuroscience Center, as well as within new clinic space being set aside at Sandoval Regional Medical Center (SRMC) in Rio Rancho. While general surgical spine procedures will be performed at both facilities, endoscopic procedures will be performed within the new specialized operative facilities at SRMC. In creating the center at UNM, Yeung joins an interdisciplinary team dedicated to providing a multipronged approach to spinal pain care.

“Every patient who comes to us is evaluated by a multi-disciplinary team,” said Harrington. “But as a neurosurgeon, I know that less than 30 percent of the patients who come in to see me will need back surgery. The question is what is the best treatment for most patients?"

The Interdisciplinary Center for Spine Health at UNM has a close affiliation with the UNM Pain Center and is located in the Clinical Neurosciences Center. The interdisciplinary team of specialists includes experts in the fields of neurology, psychiatry, physical medicine and rehabilitation, anesthesia/interventional pain, neurosurgery, internal medicine, family practice, psychology, pharmacy and physical and occupational therapy and chiropractic services.

“More than asking what kind of surgery might work, we need to be asking the broader question: what will it take to make this patient well?” said Dr. Howard Yonas, chair of UNM School of Medicine Department of Neurosurgery. “Yeung’s tools and techniques mean that many prospective back pain patients will now have a new option which involves a much less invasive approach than even what has been called minimally invasive surgery."

The endoscopic surgery tools Yeung developed are 1/6th the size of surgical tubes used in regular minimally invasive back surgery and up to 1/20th the size of what might be used in a conventional back operation. That tiny scale “shifts the entire universe,” said Yonas.

“Instead of having to open up the entire back, an endoscope allows the surgeon to approach the spine with one or more a tiny incisions. They can literally be covered with a Band-Aid."

Yeung will continue his work in endoscopic laser spine care as a professor of spine surgery at UNM.

Minimally invasive spinal surgery is not without its critics, said Yonas, which is one of the reasons Yeung wanted to team with an academic institution.

“Dr. Yeung wants to see his techniques studied further, and, as an academic surgery center, we will be able to do that,” said Yonas.

“This gift is, in a small way, a means of bringing endoscopic spine surgery to a university setting, providing training and clinical research that will fit in with the new health mandate for increased access, and in a more cost effective way,” said Yeung.  “We believe our techniques offer the most minimally invasive surgical solution to visualizing and treating pain generators without burning any bridges for traditional more invasive procedures that have higher surgical morbidity. It will greatly complement other specialized spine care providers, especially when working in a multi-disciplinary setting.”

“These techniques mean more choices for our patients,” said Harrington. “We are teaming with Dr. Yeung to study, imitate and possibly improve endoscopic spine treatments and surgery."