Having Surgery? What You Need to Know is for patients who
are facing surgery that is not an emergency. Some of the
questions in this booklet may help you and your family
understand more about your surgery, whether it has to be
done right away or can be done later. Your doctor or nurse
also can help you understand what is being done and why.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
To obtain more copies of this booklet, call the AHRQ
Publications Clearinghouse at 1-800-358-9295 or send an
e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Questions to ask your doctor and your surgeon
Care About Your Health
Help Make the Decisions
Are you facing surgery? You are not alone. Every year, more than 15
million Americans have surgery.
Most operations are not emergencies and are considered elective
surgery. This means that you have time to learn about your operation
to be sure it is the best treatment for you. You also have time to work
with your surgeon to make the surgery as safe as possible. Be active
in your health care to have quality care.
Your regular doctor is your primary care doctor. He or she may be
the doctor who suggests that you have surgery and may refer you to a
surgeon. You may also want to find another surgeon to get a second
opinion, to confirm if surgery is the right treatment for you. You
might want to ask friends or coworkers for the names of surgeons
they have used.
This booklet gives you some questions to ask your primary care
doctor and surgeon before you have surgery. It also gives the reasons
for asking these questions. The answers will help you make the best
decisions. Look on page 10 in this booklet to get tips about where
you can get more information on surgery.
Your doctors should welcome questions. If you do not understand
the answers, ask the doctor to explain them clearly. Bring a friend or
relative along to help you talk with the doctor. Research shows that
patients who are well informed about their treatment are more
satisfied with their results.
Get the Basic Facts
Why do I need an
There are many reasons to have
surgery. Some operations can
relieve or prevent pain. Others can
reduce a symptom of a problem or
improve some body function.
Some surgeries are done to find a
problem. Surgery can also save
your life. Your doctor will tell you
the purpose of the procedure. Make sure you understand how the
proposed operation will help fix your medical problem. For example,
if something is going to be repaired or removed, find out why it
needs to be done.
What operation are you recommending?
Ask your surgeon to explain the surgery and how it is done. Your
surgeon can draw a picture or a diagram and explain the steps in the
Is there more than one way of doing the operation? One way may
require more extensive surgery than another. Some operations that
once needed large incisions (cuts in the body) can now be done using
much smaller incisions (laparoscopic surgery-see box on page 3).
Some surgeries require that you stay in the hospital for 1 or more
days. Others let you come in and go home on the same day. Ask why
your surgeon wants to do the operation one way over another.
Some surgeries that used to need a large incision can now be
done using a few small cuts. Instead of a large scar, you will
have only a few small scars. Usually, you will recover from this
type of surgery more quickly. These incisions let doctors insert a
thin tube with a camera (a laparoscope) into the body to help
them see. Then they use small tools to do the surgery. This type
of surgery is called laparoscopic surgery. Removing the
gallbladder, for example, is now mostly done with this type of
Are there alternatives to surgery?
Sometimes, surgery is not the only answer to a medical problem.
Medicines or treatments other than surgery, such as a change in diet
or special exercises, might help you just as well-or more. Ask your
surgeon or primary care doctor about the benefits and risks of these
other choices. You need to know as much as possible about these
benefits and risks to make the best decision.
One alternative to surgery may be watchful waiting. During a
watchful wait, your doctor and you check to see if your problem gets
better or worse over time. If it gets worse, you may need surgery
right away. If it gets better, you may be able to wait to have surgery
or not have it at all.
How much will the operation cost?
Even if you have health insurance, there may be some costs for you
to pay. This may depend on your choice of surgeon or hospital. Ask
what your surgeon’s fee is and what it covers. Surgical fees often also
include some visits after the operation. You also will get a bill from
the hospital for your care and from the other doctors who gave you
care during your surgery.
Before you have the operation, call your insurance company. They
can tell you how much of the costs your insurance will pay and what
share you will have to pay. If you are covered by Medicare, call 1-
800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227) to find out your share of
Learn About the Benefits and Risks
What are the benefits of having the operation?
Ask your surgeon what you will gain by having the operation. For
example, a hip replacement may mean that you can walk again with
Ask how long the benefits will last. For some procedures, it is not
unusual for the benefits to last for a short time only. You may need 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
outcome or results. Ask your doctor if there is anything you can read
to help you understand the procedure and its likely results.
What are the risks of having the operation?
All operations have some risk. This is why you need to weigh the
benefits of the operation against the risks of complications or side
Complications are unplanned events linked to the operation. Typical
complications are infection, too much bleeding, reaction to
anesthesia, or accidental injury. Some people have a greater risk of
complications because of other
medical conditions. There also may
be side effects after the operation.
Often, your surgeon can tell you what
side effects to expect. For example,
there may be swelling and some
soreness around the incision.
There is almost always some pain
with surgery. Ask your surgeon how
much pain there will be and what the
doctors and nurses will do to help
stop the pain. Controlling the pain
will help you to be more comfortable
while you heal. Controlling the pain will also help you get well faster
and improve the results of your operation.
What if I don’t have this operation?
Based on what you learn about the benefits and risks of the
operation, you might decide not to have it. Ask your surgeon what
you will gain-or lose-by not having the operation now. Could
you be in more pain? Could your condition get worse? Could the
problem go away?
Learn How to Get More Information
Where can I get a second opinion?
Getting a second opinion from another doctor is a very good way to
make sure that having the operation is the best choice for you. You
can ask your primary care doctor for the name of another surgeon
who could review your medical file. If you consult another doctor,
make sure to get your records from the first doctor so that your tests
do not have to be repeated.
Many health insurance plans ask patients to get a second opinion
before they have certain operations that are not for an emergency. If
your plan does not require a second opinion, you may still ask to
have one. Check with your insurance company to see if they will pay
for a second opinion. You should discuss your insurance questions
with your health insurance company or your employee benefits
office. If you are eligible for Medicare, they will pay for a second
opinion. (For more information on second opinions, go to page 10.)
Find Out More About Your Operation
What kind of anesthesia will I need?
Anesthesia is used so that surgery can be performed without
unnecessary pain. Your surgeon can tell you whether the operation
calls for local, regional, or general anesthesia and why this form of
anesthesia is best for your procedure.
Local anesthesia numbs only a part of your body and only for a short
period of time. For example, when you go to the dentist, you may
get a local anesthetic called Novocain. It numbs the gum area around
a tooth. Not all procedures done
with local anesthesia are painless.
Regional anesthesia numbs a larger
portion of your body-for example,
the lower part of your body-for a
few hours. In most cases, you will
be awake during the operation with
regional anesthesia. General
anesthesia numbs your entire body.
You will be asleep during the whole
operation if you have general
Anesthesia is quite safe for most patients. It is usually given by a
specialized doctor (anesthesiologist) or nurse (nurse anesthetist).
Both are highly skilled and have been trained to give anesthesia.
If you decide to have an operation, ask to meet with the person who
will give you anesthesia. It is okay to ask what his or her
qualifications are. Ask what the side effects and risks of having
anesthesia are in your case. Be sure to tell him or her what medical
problems you have-including allergies and what medicines you
have been taking. These medicines may affect your response to the
anesthesia. Be sure to include both prescription and over-the-counter
medicines, like vitamins and supplements.
How long will it take me to recover?
Your surgeon can tell you how you might feel and what you will be
able to do-or not do-the first few days, weeks, or months after
surgery. Ask how long you will be in the hospital. Find out what
kind of supplies, equipment, and help you will need when you go
home. Knowing what to expect can help you get better faster.
Ask how long it will be before you can go back to work or start
regular exercise again. You do not want to do anything that will slow
your recovery. For example, lifting a 10-pound bag of potatoes may
not seem to be “too much” a week after your operation, but it could
be. You should follow your surgeon’s advice to make sure you recover
fully as soon as possible.
Making Sure Your Surgery is Safe
Check with your insurance company to find out if you may
choose a surgeon or hospital or if you must use ones selected by
the insurer. Ask your doctor about which hospital has the best
care and results for your condition if you have more than one
hospital to choose from. Studies show that for some types of
surgery, numbers count-using a surgeon or hospital that does
more of a particular type of surgery can improve your chance of
a good result.
If you do have a choice of surgeon or hospital, ask the
surgeon the following questions:
What are your qualifications?
You will want to know that your surgeon is experienced and
qualified to perform the operation. Many surgeons have taken
special training and passed exams given by a national board of
surgeons. Ask if your surgeon is “board certified” in surgery.
Some surgeons also have the letters F.A.C.S. after their name.
This means they are Fellows of the American College of
Surgeons and have passed another review by surgeons of their
How much experience do you have doing this operation?
One way to reduce the risks of surgery is to choose a surgeon
who has been well trained to do the surgery and has plenty of
experience doing it. You can ask your surgeon about his or her
recent record of successes and complications with this surgery. If
it is easier for you, you can discuss the surgeon’s qualifications
with your primary care doctor. (For more information about
finding out surgeons’ qualifications, go to page 10)
At which hospital will the operation be done?
Most surgeons work at one or two local hospitals. Find out
where your surgery will be done and how often the same
operation is done there. Research shows that patients often do
better when they have surgery in hospitals with more experience
in the operation. Ask your doctor about the success rate at the
hospitals you can choose between. The success rate is the
number of patients who improve divided by all patients having
that operation at a hospital. If your surgeon suggests using a
hospital with a lower success rate for your surgery, find out why.
Ask the surgeon how long you will be in the hospital.
Until recently, most patients who had surgery stayed in the
hospital overnight for 1 or more days. Today, many patients have
surgery done as an outpatient in a doctor’s office, a special
surgical center, or a day surgery unit of a hospital. These patients
have an operation and go home the same day. Outpatient
surgery is less expensive because you do not have to pay for
staying in a hospital room.
Ask whether your operation will be done in the hospital or in an
outpatient setting, and ask which of these is the usual way the
surgery is done. If your doctor recommends that you stay
overnight in the hospital (have inpatient surgery) for an
operation that is usually done as outpatient surgery-or
recommends outpatient surgery that is usually done as inpatient
surgery-ask why. You want to be in the right place for your
Have the surgeon mark the site he or she will operate on.
Rarely, surgeons will make a mistake and operate on the wrong
part of the body. A number of groups of surgeons now urge their
members to use a marking pen to show the place that they will
operate on. The surgeons do this by writing directly on the
patient’s skin on the day of surgery. Don’t be afraid to ask your
surgeon to do this to make your surgery safer.
For More Information
Here are some places you can get more
Surgery. The American College of Surgeons (ACS) has free
pamphlets on When You Need an Operation. For copies, write to
the ACS, Office of Public Information, 633 N. St. Clair Street,
Chicago, IL 60611, or call 312-202-5000 (toll free: 1-800-621-
4111). This group has pamphlets that give general information about
surgery and other pamphlets that describe specific surgical
procedures. These pamphlets are also available on the ACS Web site
at http://www.facs.org/public_info/ppserv.html .
Second Opinion. For the free brochure Getting a Second Opinion
Before Surgery: Your Choices and Medicare Coverage, write to
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Room 555, East High
Rise Building, 6325 Security Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21207. Ask
for Publication No. CMS 02173. The brochure can also be found on
the CMS Web site at http://www.medicare.gov/
For the name of a specialist in your area who can give you a second
opinion, ask your primary care doctor or surgeon, the local medical
society, or your health insurance company. Medicare beneficiaries
may also obtain information from the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services’ Medicare hotline; call toll-free 1-800-633-
Anesthesia. Free booklets on what you should know about
anesthesia are available from the American Society of
Anesthesiologists (ASA) or the American Association of Nurse
Anesthetists (AANA). For copies, write to ASA at 520 North
Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, IL 60068, or call 847-825-5586; or
write to AANA at 222 S. Prospect Avenue, Park Ridge, IL 60068-
4001, or call 708-692-7050.
General. For almost every disease, there is a national or local
association or society that publishes patient information. Check your
local telephone directory. There are also organized groups of patients
with certain illnesses that may be able to provide information about a
condition, alternative treatments, and experiences with local doctors
and hospitals. Ask your hospital or doctors if they know of any
patient groups related to your condition. Also, your local public
library has medical reference materials about health care treatments.
Many libraries now have Health Information Centers, special
sections with books and pamphlets on health and disease. Your
librarian also can help you find trusted sources of medical
information on the Internet. One such site is Healthfinder