Deciding To Have Surgery

If your loved one is considering surgery, make sure you both have all the information you need to make the right decision.

If a doctor recommends that your loved one undergo elective, or non-emergency, surgery, you both need to weigh the options very carefully before making a decision. Find out why the procedure is necessary, and if there are any alternative treatments available. Ask the doctor what risks are involved and what the possible benefits will be. All surgeries have both risks and benefits. They are only worth doing if the benefits are greater than the risks.

Questions To Ask Before Surgery

Doctors should always welcome questions, and the answers to these questions will help you make informed decisions. If you do not understand the answers, ask the doctors to explain them clearly. People who are well informed about their treatment tend to be more satisfied with the outcome.

What operation are you recommending?

Ask the doctor to explain the surgical procedure. Is something going to be repaired or removed, or is this procedure intended to diagnose a problem? The doctor or surgeon can draw a diagram and explain the steps involved in the procedure.

Are there different ways of doing the operation?

One way may require more extensive surgery than another. Ask why your loved one’s surgeon wants to do the operation in one particular way.

Why is the operation necessary?

There are many reasons to have surgery. Some operations can relieve or prevent pain. Others can reduce a symptom or improve some body function. Some surgeries are performed to diagnose a problem. Surgery also can save your loved one’s life. The surgeon will tell you the purpose of the procedure. Make sure you understand how the proposed operation fits in with the diagnosis of your loved one’s medical condition.

Are there alternatives to surgery?

Sometimes, surgery isn’t the only answer to a medical problem. Medicines or other non-surgical treatments, such as a change in diet or special exercises, might help just as well or more. Ask the surgeon or doctor about the benefits and risks of these other choices. Your loved one needs to know as much as possible to make the best decision.

What are the benefits of having the operation?

Ask your loved one’s surgeon what is being gained by having the operation. For example, a hip replacement may mean that your loved one will be able walk again with ease.

How long the benefits are likely to last?

For some procedures, the benefits may last for a short time only. There might be a need for a second operation at a later date. For other procedures, the benefits may last a lifetime. When finding out about the benefits of the operation, be realistic. Sometimes patients expect too much and are disappointed with the results. Ask the doctor if there is any published information about the outcomes of the procedure.

What are the risks of having the operation?

All operations carry some risk. This is why the benefits of the operation should be weighed against the risks of complications or side effects. Complications are unplanned events, such as infection, too much bleeding, reaction to anesthesia, or accidental injury. Some people have an increased risk of complications due to other medical conditions. In addition, there may be side effects after the operation. For the most part, side effects can be anticipated. For example, the surgeon knows that there will be swelling and some soreness at the site of the operation.

Ask the surgeon about the possible complications and side effects of the operation. There is almost always some pain with surgery. Ask how much there will be and what the doctors and nurses will do to reduce the pain. Controlling the pain will keep your loved one more comfortable while healing, help him or her recover faster, and improve the results of the operation.

What if my loved one chooses not to have the operation?

After weighing the benefits and risks of the operation, your loved one might decide against it. Ask the doctor what will be gained—or lost—if your loved one decides not to have surgery. Could the condition get worse? Could the problem go away?

Where can we get a second opinion?

Getting a second opinion is a very good way to make sure that surgery is the best alternative. Many health insurance plans require patients to get a second opinion before they have certain non-emergency operations. If your plan doesn’t require a second opinion, you may still ask to have one. Check with your insurance company to see if it will pay for a second opinion. (If your loved one is eligible for Medicare, it will pay for a second opinion.) When you visit the second doctor, make sure to take your all of your loved one’s medical records, so the second doctor doesn’t have to repeat any tests.

What has been your experience in doing the operation?

To reduce the risks of surgery, choose a surgeon who has been thoroughly trained and has plenty of experience doing the procedure. You can ask your loved one’s surgeon about his or her recent record of successes and complications with this procedure. If it is more comfortable for your loved one, discuss the topic of surgeons’ qualifications with his or her regular or primary care doctor.

Where will the operation be done?

Most surgeons practice at one or two local hospitals. Find out where your loved one’s operation will be performed. Have many of the same operations been done in this hospital? Some operations have higher success rates if they are performed in hospitals that do many of those procedures.

Until recently, most surgery was performed on an inpatient basis and patients stayed in the hospital for one or more days. Today, much surgery is done on an outpatient basis in a doctor’s office, a special surgical center, or a day surgery unit of a hospital. Outpatient surgery is less expensive because the patient doesn’t have to pay for a hospital stay. Find out whether the operation will be done in the hospital or in an outpatient setting.

If the doctor recommends inpatient surgery for a procedure that is usually done on an outpatient basis, or vice versa, ask why. You want your loved one to be in the right place for the operation.

What kind of anesthesia will be needed?

Anesthesia is used so that surgery can be performed without unnecessary pain. The surgeon can tell your loved one whether the operation calls for local, regional, or general anesthesia, and why this form of anesthesia is recommended for your loved one’s procedure.

  • Local anesthesia numbs only a part of the body for a short period of time. Not all procedures done with local anesthesia are painless.
  • Regional anesthesia numbs a larger portion of the body for a few hours. In most cases, patients are awake with regional anesthesia.
  • General anesthesia numbs the entire body for the entire time of the surgery. Patients are unconscious under general anesthesia.

Anesthesia is quite safe for most patients and is usually administered by a specialized physician (anesthesiologist) or nurse anesthetist. Both are highly skilled and have been specially trained to give anesthesia.

After deciding to have the operation, ask to meet with the person who will administer the anesthesia. Find out what his or her qualifications are. Ask what the side effects and risks of having anesthesia are in your loved one’s case. Be sure to tell the anesthesiologist everything about your loved one’s medical condition, including allergies and any medications being taken, since they may affect response to the anesthesia.

How long will it take to recover?

The surgeon can tell you how your loved done might feel and what he or she will be able to do during the days, weeks, or months following surgery. Ask how long your loved one will be in the hospital. Find out what kind of supplies, equipment, and any other help your loved one will need when he or she goes home. Knowing what to expect can help your loved one cope better with recovery.

How much will the operation cost?

Ask what the surgeon’s fee is and what it covers. Surgical fees often also include several visits after the operation. You also will be billed by the hospital for inpatient or outpatient care and by the anesthesiologist and others providing care related to the operation. Health insurance coverage for surgery and hospital stays can vary, and there may be some costs that you or your loved one will have to pay. Before your loved one has the operation, discuss all of these questions with his or her insurance company or employee benefits office.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Be Informed: Questions To Ask Your Doctor Before You Have Surgery, AHCPR Publication No. 95-0027, developed by the United States Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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