Senior Health Series: Considering Surgery?

Have you been told that you need to have surgery? If so, you are not alone. Millions of older Americans have surgery each year.

Most surgeries are not emergencies. You have time to find out as much as possible about the surgery, think the matter over, and review other options. You also have time to get a second opinion.

Questions to Ask

Deciding to have surgery can be difficult, but an informed decision may be easier to make once you know why surgery is necessary and whether there are other treatment choices. Your surgeon can help. Talk with your surgeon about your condition and the surgery recommended.

Don't hesitate to ask the surgeon any questions you might have. For example, do the benefits of surgery outweigh the risks?

Your surgeon should welcome your questions. If you don't understand something, ask the surgeon to explain it more clearly. The answers to the following questions will help you become informed and make the best decision.

  • What surgery is recommended?
  • Why do I need surgery?
  • Can another treatment be tried instead of surgery?
  • What if I don't have the surgery?
  • How will the surgery affect my health and lifestyle?
  • Are there any activities that I won't be able to do after surgery?
  • How long will it take to recover?
  • How much experience has the surgeon had doing this kind of surgery?
  • Where will the surgery be done - in the hospital, the doctor's office, a special surgical center, or a day surgery unit of a hospital?
  • What kind of anesthesia will be used?
  • What are the side effects and risks of having anesthesia?
  • Is there anything else I should know about this surgery?

Choosing a Surgeon

Your primary care doctor may recommend a surgeon to you. You also may want to identify another independent surgeon to get a second opinion.

One way to reduce the risk of surgery is to choose a surgeon who has been thoroughly trained to do the type of surgery you need and who has plenty of experience doing it. Be sure to ask about your surgeon's qualifications. For example, you may want to find out if your surgeon is certified by a surgical board that is approved by the American Board of Medical Specialties (such as the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery, or other national surgical board). Surgeons who are board-certified have successfully completed training and passed exams for their specialty.

The letters "FACS" after a surgeon's name tell you that he or she is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Fellows are almost always board-certified surgeons who have passed a test of their surgical training and skills; they also have shown their commitment to high standards of ethical conduct. Don't hesitate to call the doctor's office and ask for this information. Your State or local medical society and the hospital where the surgeon operates also should be able to verify his or her training. Try to choose an experienced surgeon who operates regularly (several times a week) and who has treated a problem like yours before.

Getting a Second Opinion

Getting a second opinion from another surgeon is a good way to make sure that having surgery is the best choice for you. Many people are uneasy about seeking another opinion. They worry that they might offend their doctor. However, getting a second opinion is a common medical practice. Most doctors encourage it.

Getting a second opinion is a good way to get additional expert advice from another doctor who knows a lot about treating your particular medical problem. In addition, a second opinion can reassure you that your decision to have surgery is the right one.

Don't be afraid to tell your surgeon that you want another opinion and that you would like your medical records sent to the second doctor. This can save time, money, and possible discomfort since tests that you've already had may not need to be repeated if the second doctor has the results.

When getting another opinion, tell the second doctor your symptoms, the type of surgery that has been recommended, and the results of any tests you've already had. Ask the second doctor the same questions you asked the first one about the benefits and risks of surgery.