What to Ask Before Surgery

You’ll be a lot more relaxed going into an operation if you’re not worrying about whether the operation is really a good idea

By Wendy Haaf

Your doctor tells you that you could or should have an operation. If you’re like most people, you’re surprised, if not shocked, and at least a little fearful—not emotional states conducive to thinking through important decisions calmly and rationally.

Surgeons do their best to lay out what patients need to know to be comfortable making a choice, but knowing beforehand the kinds of questions to pose when you’re faced with such a decision may help make the process a little less daunting. Here are some of the things to ask before going ahead with surgery.

What exactly is wrong?

When people receive a diagnosis, they’re not always sure exactly what it means, according to Dr. Heather Cox, a vascular surgeon at the Northern Alberta Vascular Centre and a clinical lecturer in the Division of General Surgery at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

“It’s very common that I ask a patient, ‘Why do you think you’re here today?’ and he or she has no idea,” she says.

If there’s something you don’t understand, speak up, she urges. “I have no problem if someone asks me three times to explain the same thing.”

How is the procedure is done?

This discussion should involve a description of what will happen during the operation, including details such as where the incision will be made, how big it’s likely to be, and how long the surgery is expected to take.

“No surgery is too complicated to explain,” stresses Dr. Richard Fox, an assistant professor in the Division of Neurosurgery at the University of Alberta.

If something isn’t clear or seems odd, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, no matter how silly the question might seem. Having a partner or another supportive family member or close friend on hand during the consultation is helpful.

What is the goal of the surgery you’re proposing? And what are the odds it will achieve that goal?

Surgeons say it’s not uncommon for people to assume that surgery is always an attempt at curing or permanently fixing a problem, but that isn’t always the case. Sometimes an operation is proposed to keep a condition from progressing or to relieve one specific symptom.

“For example, a patient may have many types of pain, but our goal might be to relieve one certain type of pain,” Cox explains. Needless to say, if that limited goal isn’t clear at the outset, the patient will be disappointed afterwards, even if the surgery is successful.

Patients should also ask how long the benefits of the procedure are likely to last, since some operations may need to be repeated.

How much experience do you have with this procedure?

Studies suggest that surgeons who do a high volume of a specific surgery each year have better success rates than those who do few such procedures. What constitutes “high volume” depends on the operation: more than 50 procedures is a decent threshold for a fairly common surgery, such as removal of the gall bladder or a knee replacement, versus 20 for a surgery that’s relatively rare. I

Photos: iStock.

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