Trained in the Technology
August 30, 2021
Dustin Donnelly, MD, PhD, joins UH with valuable expertise in robotic spine surgery
UH Clinical Update - September 2021
A fellowship-trained spine surgeon proficient in the field’s latest leading-edge technologies is the newest West side addition to the UH Spine Institute. The bonus? He’s a native of Northeast Ohio.
Dustin Donnelly, MD, PhD, is now seeing patients and performing spine surgery at Southwest General and UH St. John Medical Center, part of a growing UH Spine Institute program on the West side. He’s returning to the area after residency training in neurological surgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston and fellowship training in complex spine surgery at Duke University Medical Center – two of the country’s leading programs.
Dr. Donnelly graduated from Highland High School in Medina and completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Akron. He earned his medical degree at Ohio State University College of Medicine, also earning a PhD studying the dichotomous role of the innate immune response after spinal cord injury. He says he’s pleased to be back in Northeast Ohio to continue the next phase in his career as a spine surgeon.
“I’m very excited to be here,” he says. “My family loves it here, and I know I will enjoy working with everyone in the UH system. This was a great opportunity at a prestigious institution. For me, having the opportunity to join a practice that is all about expanding and moving forward with enabling technologies – it was just a huge opportunity.”
According to Gabriel Smith, MD, Director of the UH Spine Institute, the expertise in spine surgery-enabling technologies that Dr. Donnelly brings to UH is found nowhere else in Northeast Ohio. Robotic spine surgery is one particular area of strength, he says.
“I think Dustin’s background in robotic spine surgery is exceptionally unique,” Dr. Smith says. “We don’t have anybody in Northeast Ohio at any facility that has that expertise. What he has that’s unique and intangible is the transformative technology background that is the future of spine surgery. However, he’s also a comprehensive spine surgeon, meaning he has training in all aspects of spine surgery.”
Beyond his background in robotic technology, Dr. Donnelly highlights the advantages of other technological advances in spine surgery he learned during his fellowship training at Duke.
“With robotics, you can do long segment fusions in a minimally invasive way, sparing as much of the native tissue architecture as possible,” he says. “This helps to prevent failures in the future and adjacent segment disease. Using robotic technology and other technologies with regard to pre-operative rod planning and deformity correction simulations, you can make sure at the time of surgery you’re meeting all the goals that you set forth before surgery, in the operating room. You’re not waiting for the x-rays the next day – you’re making sure that as you make all your osteotomies and your corrections the results are in line with the preoperative plan.”
One important new technological tool at UH that Dr. Donnelly and his spine surgery colleagues have at their disposal is the hospital system’s new EOSedge x-ray system. UH is the first site in Ohio to employ the system and only the second in the U.S.
Dr. Smith explains its advantages for spine surgery patients:
“The way our body uses our spine, there’s a harmony in how we carry our body weight,” he says. “Global alignment – global position of where a person’s body weight is in relation to their spine and their pelvis -- has a lot to do with how they do from surgery. We are just starting to understand the implications of doing surgery with that harmony being out of position. Dustin is uniquely positioned because he knows how to use this EOSedge technology to model his surgeries to prevent patients from having poor outcomes. By using this kind of transformative technology, he’ll be able to pre-surgically plan out his surgeries in ways to prevent long-term sequelae from having surgery.”
As he begins his career at UH, Dr. Donnelly says he’s sees himself not only as a surgeon, but also as a bit of a teacher for his patients.
“One of the most important things to do when you’re interacting with a patient is to explain, to take the time to teach them about their condition,” he says. “You can show them what the pathology is and make sure that they have a very solid understanding of what’s going to be done in the operating room, as well as what to expect after surgery in terms of their recovery and any functional limitations. It’s making sure that the patient is clear about all the expectations – before surgery, during and afterwards, so that there’s the best chance for a positive physical and emotional outcome.”
Dr. Donnelly is dedicated to the West side portion of the UH system, serving patients in Lorain County, Westlake and as far south as Medina. He’s part of what is becoming a comprehensive spine surgery program at UH St. John Medical Center.
Dr. Smith says he’s excited for Dr. Donnelly to get started.
“Part of the reason we value subspecialty fellowships like the one Dustin completed is that operating on the right patient is just as important as doing a good surgery,” he says. “We think he has the unique intangibles from his fellowship training to really know when to operate, which is the part that makes a good surgeon into a great surgeon.”