Millions of Americans will undergo surgery each year. It is
important for patients to be informed about the surgery being
recommended, particularly if it is elective surgery (an operation you
choose to have performed), rather than an emergency surgery (also
called urgent surgery). All surgeries have risks and benefits which
you should familiarize yourself with before deciding whether the
procedure is appropriate for you.
The following are important questions you should review with your
physician prior to surgery. Ask your physician to explain the answers
clearly and ask for further clarification if you are having trouble
understanding an explanation and/or any medical terms. Some patients
find it helpful to write their questions down ahead of time and bring
a tape recorder to help them review the information discussed before
making a final decision.
It is important to remember that a well-informed patient tends to be
more satisfied with the outcome or results of a procedure.
What is the operation being recommended?
Your physician should clearly explain the surgical procedure,
explaining the steps involved and providing you with illustrative
examples. You should ask if there are different methods for performing
this operation and why he/she favors one way over another.
Why is the procedure necessary?
Reasons to have surgery may vary from relieving or preventing pain
to diagnosing a problem to improving body function. Ask your physician
to specifically explain why this procedure is being recommended for
you and make sure you understand how this may improve your medical condition.
What are my alternatives to this procedure? Are there other
treatment options available based on my current medical condition?
In some cases, medication or non-surgical treatments, such as
lifestyle changes, may be as helpful in improving a condition as
surgery. Your physician should clearly explain the benefits and risks
of these options so that you can make an informed decision about
whether or not surgery is necessary. Sometimes "watchful
waiting" is indicated, in which the physician will monitor your
condition over a period of time to observe changes and the progression
of a disease. You may still need surgery, or if your condition
improves or stabilizes, you may be able to postpone surgery. After a
period of "watchful waiting," it may be determined that
surgery is still the best option.
What are the benefits of the surgery and how long will they last?
It is important that your physician outline the specific benefits of
having surgery for you. You should also ask how long the benefits
typically last. Some benefits only last a short time, and could
possibly require a second operation, while others may last a lifetime.
Also, ask your physician about published information regarding the
outcomes of the recommended procedure. This will allow you to make an
informed decision and have realistic expectations about the surgery.
What are the risks and possible complications of having the operation?
Surgery always carries some risks, so it is important to weigh the
benefits against the risks before surgery. Ask your physician to
outline the possible complications, such as infection and bleeding,
and possible side effects that could follow the procedure. You should
also discuss pain and ways to manage any pain that may follow the procedure.
What happens if you do not have the operation?
If you decide, after weighing the benefits and risks of the surgery,
not to have the operation, what will happen? You need to know whether
the condition will worsen or if there is a possibility that it may
Should I obtain a second opinion?
Many health plans now require patients to obtain a second opinion
before undergoing elective surgery. Your physician should be able to
supply you with the names of qualified individuals who also perform
the procedure. For more information on second opinions, see the
Preoperative Management section of this module.
What is the physician's experience in performing this procedure?
You can minimize the risks of surgery by choosing a physician who is
thoroughly trained and experienced in performing the procedure. You
may ask the physician about his/her experience with the procedure
being performed, including the number of times he/she has performed
it, and his/her record of successes, as well as complications.
Where will the surgery be performed?
Until recently, most surgery was performed in hospitals. Today,
however, many procedures are done on an outpatient basis or in
ambulatory care centers. This lowers the cost of these procedures
since you are not paying for a hospital room. Certain procedures still
need to be performed on an inpatient basis. Be sure to ask your
physician why he/she recommends either setting.
What type of anesthesia will be administered?
Your physician should tell you whether a local, regional, or general
anesthesia will be administered and why this type of anesthesia is
recommended for your procedure. You should also ask who will be
administering the anesthesia (such as an anesthesiologist or a nurse
anesthetist; both of whom are highly qualified to administer
anesthesia) and ask to meet with that person before your operation.
For more about anesthesia, see the Preoperative Management section of
What can I expect during recovery?
Ask your physician what to expect in the first few days following
surgery, as well as in the weeks and months that follow. You need to
know how long you will be hospitalized, what limitations will be
placed on you, and if there are special supplies or equipment you will
need upon discharge. Knowing ahead of time what to expect will help
you to cope and recover more quickly following the surgery.
What are the costs of this operation?
Because health plans vary in their coverage of different procedures,
there may be costs you will be responsible for. You will need to know
what the specific costs of the operation will be and how much your
insurance or health plan will cover.
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news for physicians and office staff. For help with all referral needs
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