If you’re a patient, there’s no such thing as ‘routine surgery.’ All surgical procedures, ranging from common surgeries like the removal of your appendix or wisdom teeth, to a C-section or complex heart bypass operation, contain some risk. Even though your medical team has your best interests at heart, it’s natural to be scared if you’re told you need surgery. In most cases the surgery is elective – that is, it’s not an emergency and even if it's a lifesaving surgery – you still have the option of getting a second opinion or even refusing.
If you’ve been told you need surgery and aren’t sure if it’s the right option, this information can help you make the right choice.
Ask the Right Questions
A good doctor will want their patients to feel comfortable. Now is the time to take an active role in your health. It’s part of your doctor’s job to listen to you and provide honest answers to your questions, especially when it comes to making choices about your care.
- Why is the operation being recommended?
- What other treatments are available?
- What are the benefits and how long will they last?
- What are the potential complications?
- What happens if I decide to delay the surgery?
- How will I be affected if I refuse the surgery?
- How many of these surgeries have you performed?
If possible, ask the doctor or their staff to put the answers in writing. Make sure you can understand what you’re being told. You always have the right to have a family member, interpreter, or other trusted individual with you at this appointment.
Find Out About Costs and Coverage
Make sure the surgery is covered by your health plan and ask if they can tell you how much you could expect to pay (both overall and out-of-pocket), what affects those charges, and how much they could differ. Depending on your plan, it should be easy to see another doctor for a second opinion. To avoid unexpected charges, verify with your insurance customer service first.
Get a Second Opinion
Even though doctors go through years of schooling and training, many medical issues aren’t black and white, and there can be many treatments available. Two doctors can often see things differently, which is why a second opinion is important.
As mentioned above, your first step should be checking with your health plan. If possible, see a doctor at another hospital or health system (if it’s covered) – you may benefit by seeing someone with completely different training and experience.
Before your second opinion, get copies of all of the documents, scans, X-rays, and appointment notes relating to your condition. Even if your doctor’s office offers to email or fax the documents, your best bet is to get hard copies and carry them with you to your visit. That way the new doctor has all of the information and won’t need to send you for additional tests. This will save you time and money.
Research the Surgeon
You’ve already asked questions about the surgery; now it’s time to learn more about the doctor performing your surgeon. Start by asking your primary care physician for their opinion. You can also learn a lot by searching online. No, there’s still not a Yelp for doctors, but sites like HealthGrades and AMA Doctor Finder have important information about board certification, years of experience, hospital ratings, sanctions and malpractice, and all the other information you need to make an informed decision.
Ask for an Advocate
Depending on your condition, you may qualify for an advocate or other services through your hospital or your health coverage plan. In some cases, an advocate can provide you with a list of surgeons in your area, as well as general information about your treatment options. Advocates may also be able to coordinate after-care, such as necessary prescriptions, transportation home, follow-up visits, and occupational or physical therapy. Services vary by hospital and plan; talk to your doctor and your insurance customer service to learn more.
Once You’ve Made Your Decision, Let It Go and Start Getting Ready
Managing a chronic condition, injury, or illness can be a big source of stress. Concentrate on the fact that you’ve done your homework and made a decision to improve your life. Try to remain positive and stay committed to your health. You may even take time to revisit some long-term health goals – for example, getting to a healthy weight or quitting smoking, both of which can greatly improve your odds for a successful health outcome.
Also, get your home ready for your release, especially if you expect to be mobility-challenged for a while. Make sure you have plenty of supplies on hand, including your medications, meals that don’t require much preparation, medical equipment you may needs (crutches, a walker, bandages or dressings, a raised toilet seat), and items of convenience and comfort, like tissues, slippers, heating pads, entertainment, or even a handy grabber stick. Relax and don’t rush your recovery – you’ve only got one chance to get it right!