- Find out the risks and benefits of the procedure you are having
- Inquire about potential alternatives to surgery
- In nonemergency scenarios, a second opinion can be helpful
The prospect of undergoing surgery can be unnerving, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable.
A million questions could be running through your head: What if something goes wrong? How long will it take me to recover? Is it worth doing it at all?
Sometimes, the questions you ask yourself are the hardest to talk about with your doctor.
Dr. Karl Bilimoria, a surgeon at Northwestern University and the American College of Surgeons, advises that identifying and addressing these questions may help ensure a healthy recovery after an operation.
In August, Bilimoria and researchers at the American College of Surgeons released an online tool that allows patients, in collaboration with their doctors, to estimate what their risks may be in undertaking an operation.
The Surgical Risk Calculator was created by using data from 1.4 million American patients and 2,500 operations, ranging from tonsillitis to breast reconstruction. It takes into account 22 preoperative patient risk factors, including a patient's risk of dying and possible complications such as pneumonia, heart problems, surgical site infection, blood clots, urinary tract infections and kidney failure. It also projects how long the patient may have to stay in the hospital after the operation.
"This tool prompts an important discussion between a patient and his or her doctor that may not have happened otherwise," Bilimoria said.
If you still have concerns, here is a set of basic questions to ask your doctor to help promote these needed discussions:
1. What are the benefits of undergoing this procedure? How long will they last?
What your doctor believes is best for you may not be what you think is best for yourself. It is important to find out why this surgery is necessary and whether this surgery will necessitate more surgeries later.
Some surgeries can benefit you for the rest of your life, and some could require multiple additional procedures. Knowing the possibilities of both the short-term and long-term outcomes allows you to make a more informed decision and have more realistic expectations.
2. Are there alternatives to surgery? What are the other treatment options?
Sometimes, surgery can be avoided by taking medication or making lifestyle changes. Establishing with your physician the risks and benefits of possible alternatives to surgery is an important step in addressing the big decision at hand. In some cases, surgery may not be necessary immediately, but a condition will be monitored over time to take note of changes.
It is important, however, to understand the implications of foregoing surgery. Monitoring a condition might need to be continued over the course of decades. Make sure you keep copies of your medical files in case you move or change doctors.
3. Should I get a second opinion?
If your surgery is not an emergency, it can be helpful to tap the expertise of another physician about the necessity of performing a procedure.
Most health plans, including in certain instances Medicare, will provide coverage for patients to seek a consultation with another physician about a procedure if the case is not an emergency. Check with your primary care physician for suggestions of other doctors who can perform the same procedure.
Bring your medical records during the consultation to avoid repeating tests that have already been performed.
For emergency procedures, a second opinion is not recommended. The severity of the medical condition should always come first.
4. What will the procedure cost?
The cost of surgery can be broken up into three parts:
a. The surgeon's fee.
b. Hospital fees or ambulatory surgical center fees (for outpatient services)
c. Other professional services such as surgical assistants, anesthesiologists, medical consultants
Be sure to consult your health plan to find out what portion of the cost you may have to pay out of pocket.
The Healthcare Blue Book is also a great tool to get a sense of how much your surgery should cost.
5. How long will it take to recover?
Recovery time depends on a number of factors such as age, health and type of procedure.
Certain equipment, tools and medication may be necessary as you recuperate. Knowing ahead of time which you will need after the procedure will help speed up your recovery.
Other tips & tools
• There's never such thing as too many questions. Ask your doctor everything that's on your mind until you feel that you understand what will happen during the procedure.
• Read up on your surgery. A good resource is Surgical Patient Education for a Better Recovery, a website set up by the American College of Surgeons' Division of Education. Or just ask your doctor for any printed information that might help.
• When talking to your physician, take notes or bring a friend or family member to do it for you.