Groundbreaking Spinal Treatment Spurs Saudi Interest
This is the story of a passionate, innovative alumnus who helped pioneer a new specialty in medicine, founded an award-winning hospital, created a foundation, became a friend and physician to the Royal family of Saudi Arabia, and patented a medical invention that is providing new, minimally-invasive treatments for disc and spinal disorders.
And he's only 43.
"I never use an alarm clock, and I work seven days a week," says Kevin Pauza, M.D., '90, an Interventional Spine specialist and researcher who focuses on the diagnosis and non-surgical treatment of back and neck pain. "It doesn't feel like work when you love what you do."
An ardent advocate of minimally-invasive techniques, Pauza has developed a series of eight patents for a device and biologic that instigates healing and regrowth of degenerated tissue.
"I say do your own thing as long as you're happy and helping others," he says simply.
His "own thing" includes a lot. In addition to treating patients, he's on the editorial panel of several scientific journals, committees, and boards. He also lectures and publishes extensively and, due to his ground-breaking work, has appeared on major media outlets including an upcoming piece May 8 on CBS Sunday Morning.
He is also the lead investigator (and the only physician in this specialty) of a rigorous Phase III pivotal drug trial in process across twenty-two sites that uses biologics to treat the spine–a technology actively being sought by six other countries.
Five years ago, Pauza co-founded (and still co-owns) the Texas Spine and Joint Hospital in Tyler, Texas, which is ranked number five nationally based on patient outcomes, satisfaction and infection rates. He's also developed a spine fellowship program that trains physicians worldwide.
Pauza recently created the John Dehaan Foundation, which awards $250,000 annually to a person making the greatest advances in nonsurgical spinal treatment. He notes, "We spend more money treating lower back pain then we do treating heart disease or cancer."
Last year, Pauza was contacted by the U.S. State Department and was told that he would get a call from Saudi Arabia that he should "take seriously."
In subsequent meetings and conversations with the Royal family (in particular, Prince Faisel bin Abdullah, who serves as Minister of Education for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), Pauza learned of the Saudis' great desire to develop education and medicine for their citizens.
"Everything I read and was told about Saudi Arabia was wrong," says Pauza.
"The Royal family is friendly with America, and they have a great deal of respect and admiration for us. When I travel, I like to go out on my own. I've walked the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh clearly as an American, and people come up and greet me and shake my hand."
He adds, "They respect our medicine, and they're interested in research and in bringing new technology to their citizens, which is how they found me."
A native of Hershey, Pauza credits his medical alma mater for encouraging him to "think outside the box." Although he could have easily qualified for top Ivy League medical schools, he applied early, saying, "I really love Penn State and only wanted to come here."
"The faculty-to-student ratio was perfect, it's grounded in primary care, and it was the only medical school that required a humanities course. That turned me on. It told me that professors here would be altruistic and open-minded. And they proved to be very caring and nurturing."
Penn State was also one of the few schools that required medical students to complete published research, a journey that has led Pauza down the road of invention. When asked if his non-surgical approach to spinal treatment has been met with skepticism, Pauza responds, "As long as we as researchers and physicians have a strong foundation of facts that can't be disputed, we can go up against anyone without concern."
He cites an address he made before the European Neurological Society, composed of "traditionalists" who currently use fusion to treat severe spinal injuries. "From the minute I started talking, they were arguing," says Pauza. "But after forty-five minutes, they stood and clapped."
"Every great invention has challenged what existed before. If you have facts to back you up, don't be afraid to challenge the establishment."
When he chaired a guidelines committee for interventional spine, he noted inaccuracies in the textbooks. "I tell medical students to read everything in the literature with a high level of scrutiny. If you question something, pursue that question and come up with an answer that's better than the one that exists."
He also encourages students to become immersed in every rotation. "Never go into your clinical years thinking you know what you're going to do. Do every single thing fully."
In 2008, Pauza was chosen from of approximately half a million alumni to receive the prestigious Alumni Fellow Award from the Penn State Alumni Association. He says he felt "truly humbled," adding "It's the greatest honor I've ever received, because I was recognized by my peers, who I hold with such high regard and esteem."