Dr. Thomas Zdeblick resigned from his position as chair of the Department of Orthopedics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in June. He currently remains head of the UW Spine Center and a member of the department of Orthopedics.
His resignation comes after his proposal to build a new physician-owned surgical center in the Madison area was denied. Zdeblick did not respond to an immediate request to comment, so it is unclear why he chose to step down from his role as chair of the department.
“He came up with a creative idea … which I think was well motivated to create additional [capacity] for surgeries … and I don’t think he realized that it was not only out of the box in terms of creativity but it was also out of bounds in terms of restrictions, based on university and state regulations,” said Dr. Robert Golden, dean of the Wisconsin School of Medicine and chair of the board of UW Health.
If the proposal had been accepted, Zdeblick would have held positions as both medical director and part-owner at his proposed surgical center. Golden argued that this would be a conflict of interest. Further, Golden argued that Zdeblick and other physician-owners would direct business away from UW Health while benefiting from the organization’s resources.
“I think it was a plan that wasn’t appropriate to go forward, because it could readily proceed as a conflict of interest,” Golden said.
Zdeblick was chair of the department since 2000, and succeeded both as a department administrator and clinical physician. Zdeblick’s practice focuses primarily on spine surgeries, and he designed a variety of medical technologies to assist in less invasive surgical methodologies.
“Dr. Zdeblick has had an incredibly distinguished career spanning more than three decades here,” said Golden. “He is a gifted orthopedic surgeon, the kind of person who I send referrals to without hesitation. He’s also an incredibly gifted innovator — he has created devices and other medical solutions that have literally changed the lives of patients across the world.”
Golden also believes Zdeblick considered stepping back from his role as chair for quite some time and is unsure whether his failed proposal was the direct cause in Zdeblick’s decision to resign. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, Zdeblick plans to retire from all UW Health duties at the end of this year.
“I know he had been thinking about stepping down from that role because he had done it much longer than most people serve in those roles,” said Golden. “I can’t say whether it was a direct cause and effect because he had been talking to me about making a transition out of that role for quite some time going back to before the COVID epidemic.”
As of now, Dr. Tammy Scerpella is the interim chair, and a national search for the permanent chair will be launched in the near future, according to a statement from the School of Medicine and Public Health.
This is not the first time Zdeblick has been scrutinized because of possible conflicts of interest during his long career. Approximately a decade ago, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Senate investigation revealed he received approximately $34 million in royalties from medical device company Medtronic after authoring favorable reviews of Medtronic products in scientific journals without disclosing his financial relationship to the company.
At the time, Golden defended Zdeblick’s actions and he continued his position as chair of the department.
Noe Goldhaber is a staff writer for the Daily Cardinal specializing in campus and state news reporting.