Revolutionary spinal surgical technique first in South Africa

Patient recovery radically expedited with unilateral biportal endoscopic surgery

Tuesday, July 19 2022

A revolutionary spinal surgical technique that can radically expedite patient recovery has been performed for the first time in South Africa. The technique, while highly progressive, can be done with equipment that is readily available in both private and public facilities. 

This is according to Dr Shawn Venter, an orthopaedic spinal surgeon practising at Netcare Kuils River Hospital, who successfully performed the new unilateral biportal endoscopic surgery (UBE) following his earlier completion of intensive international training in the technique. 

“UBE brings together the specialist fields of orthopaedics and neurosurgery, combining elements of both into a single procedure. It embraces the camera system used in knee and shoulder keyhole surgery – done through very small incisions – with minor adjustments, but enables the surgeon to use the conventional and familiar open neurosurgical spinal decompression and fusion equipment to perform the surgery,” he explains.  

“This is a perfect marriage between extraordinary visuals of the spinal and neural anatomy, and the skill and finesse of neurosurgical techniques on the spine. The left hand operates the camera system and the right hand operates the neurosurgical spinal equipment. As this equipment is already widely used throughout the country, surgeons in both private and public sectors will be able to perform this surgery cost effectively, as no investment needs to be made in advanced technology. 

Pic: Dr Shawn Venter, an orthopaedic spinal surgeon practising at Netcare Kuils River Hospital, has successfully performed the first unilateral biportal endoscopic (UBE) surgery in South Africa. While highly progressive, UBE can be done with equipment that is readily available in both private and public facilities throughout the country, meaning that surgeons in both sectors will be able to perform the surgery cost effectively once they have trained in the technique.
Pic: Dr Shawn Venter with the theatre team. From left to right: Prosthetics representative, Jacques de Villiers; anaesthetic nurse, Sr Nancy Siphambo; anaesthetist, Dr Cornelius van Der Heyden; orthopaedic spinal surgeon, Dr Shawn Venter; circulating nurse, Mr Suku Khanyeli; radiographer, May Botha; and registered nurses Mr Knowledge Cele, and Sr Rene Mars.


“The benefits to this type of surgery are numerous and significant. Firstly, with UBE there is much reduced tissue trauma and no muscle damage from large incisions and dissections. This means that patients can experience immediate mobility in the muscle groups supporting the back and avoid the major rehabilitation hurdles they would face with conventional surgery. 

“The first patient to undergo the procedure we recently performed here at Netcare Kuils River Hospital had a herniated disc causing severe leg pain that radiated from the back through the spine and into the leg. Following the surgery, the patient experienced pain relief immediately and was discharged the next morning.

“UBE also gives us the ability to see what we previously could not, with unmatched capabilities compared to certain other types of spinal surgery, as the camera system allows for high definition visuals of anatomical structures as well as visuals of areas that would be considered no-mans-land with other surgical techniques,” says Dr Venter.

“Furthermore, due to the constant irrigation while performing surgery, there is less risk of wound infection, contributing to an improved outcome. Recovery times vary between different spinal conditions, however after undergoing UBE surgery patients recover more quickly overall and can get back to their lives sooner.”

In addition to these benefits, Dr Venter notes that many patients who are not able to undergo more conventional forms of spinal surgery can have UBE surgery. “For example, we are seeing an increase in multiple complicated comorbidities among patients who require spinal operations and some of these patients have a high risk of anaesthesia related complications. Spinal endoscopic surgery has bridged the gap for patients like these for whom a less invasive form of surgical intervention can be effective. In certain cases UBE can even be conducted with sedation rather than general anaesthesia. 

“There are very few limitations in terms of the conditions that can be treated with UBE surgery. It can be used in the treatment of spinal stenosis, disc herniations, fusions and post operative neurolysis to free up trapped nerves in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions,” he notes.

Dr Venter says that the new technique began gaining popularity in the global healthcare community approximately five years ago and that plans were in place for him to travel for UBE training in 2020, however due to COVID-19 there was a delay in bringing this knowledge back to South Africa. 

“Fortunately, I was able to travel to Turkey in June this year to train under Prof Hayati Aygün, a renowned orthopaedic specialist and a protégé of one of the original pioneers of this type of surgery – Prof Sang Kyu Son, an acclaimed spinal surgeon and microsurgery specialist in South Korea. 

“My training entailed an intensive week of live surgeries, both observational and hands on. Certification is only given once the professor is satisfied with the understanding gained and skills acquired. In my case, I was able to draw on my previous experience in transforaminal uniportal endoscopic and minimal invasive surgeries, and my knowledge from pain procedures and even open surgery all contributed to understanding the intricacies of the technique. This made the leap fairly straightforward but there are certain training programmes that offer longer term fellowships for inexperienced surgeons.” 

According to Dr Venter, UBE surgery forms part of a more comprehensive approach to spinal pathology and enables the team at Netcare Kuils River Hospital to complement other types of minimally invasive surgery already in use there. 

“It is important to note that while UBE is a very versatile technique, some spinal conditions are still best treated with open surgery. In this way UBE should be seen as supplementary to other spinal surgical techniques, such as minimal invasive surgery, open front/back spinal fusions, revision spinal fusion surgery and deformity correction surgery,” he says. 

The Spine Centre at Netcare Kuils River Hospital offers all these treatments with its focused team of specialists, all of whom have a special interest in non-surgical interventional pain management. 

Dr Venter adds that while UBE surgery requires fairly standard equipment, technology such as the 3D Ziehm fluoroscopy available at the Spine Centre can provide invaluable advantages, such as being able to perform a CT like scan post-operatively while the patient is still in theatre to ensure adequate decompression. If needed, some of the instrumentation can be navigated to provide even more precise pinpointed accuracy in real time during the surgery. 

“South Africa has a rich history of exceptional physicians, and ongoing support and learning opportunities are needed for doctors to continue reaching new heights. I am thankful for the support of my mentor Dr Jack Eksteen, my partner Dr Reggie King, our colleagues, the Netcare Kuils River Hospital team, our theatre team as well as the companies supplying the necessary technology and equipment in making this dream of UBE in South Africa a reality,” says Dr Venter.  

Dirk Truter, general manager of Netcare Kuils River Hospital notes that in addition to establishing a dedicated four bed ICU for the centre, which will be available by the end of the year, the hospital will soon be embarking on a project to build new consulting rooms and enlarge the spinal theatre. The upgrade will include technologies such as a specialised theatre light system with built-in cameras. This will enable access to live video feed in theatre as well as in the consulting rooms to assist in surgeon training. The technology also makes remote access possible for authorised users to further learning opportunities for surgeons situated elsewhere. 

“The Spine Centre at Netcare Kuils River Hospital is well known for its highly specialised services, not only in practice but also in terms of the invaluable training and learning opportunities the centre provides to other spinal surgeons. We are honoured to have such experienced specialists practising here, to be able to serve our community alongside them and to provide such a high level of person centred care to ensure the best possible outcomes for our patients at all times,” concluded Truter.  

As with any spinal surgery, rehabilitation is essential for optimal outcomes. The Spine Centre at Netcare Kuils River Hospital embraces a holistic approach and services to patients incorporate physiotherapy, occupational therapy, biokinetics, nutrition and, where necessary, input from a physician, as this has been overwhelmingly proven to have superior post-operative outcomes. 

Rehabilitation from a spinal procedure varies from person to person and each patient will face their own particular set of challenges during the process. The team of allied healthcare workers who work with the Spine Centre is well versed in ensuring the patient adjusts to normal life as easily as possible. This can range from engaging with a patient’s employer to provide recommendations for job amendments by the occupational therapist, to ensuring that an elderly person maintains their independence once they return home.  

To contact the Netcare Kuils River Hospital Spine Centre please call 021 903 2696 or visit the website at 


Notes to editor

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