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Sizing Up Surgery

Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Have Surgery

The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research recommends you ask your physician the following types of questions before having surgery. The answers to these questions will help you be informed and make the best decision about whether to have surgery, by whom, where, and when. Patients who are well-informed about their treatment, according to the agency, are usually more satisfied with the outcome and results.

1. Why Do I Need the Operation?

There are many reasons to have surgery. Some operations can relieve or prevent pain, others can reduce the symptom of a problem or improve some body function, and some surgeries are performed to diagnose a problem. Surgery can also save your life. When your surgeon tells you the purpose of the procedure, make certain you understand how the recommended operation fits in with the diagnosis of your medical condition.

2. Are There Alternatives to Surgery?

Sometimes surgery is not the only answer to a medical problem. Medicines or other nonsurgical treatments might help you just as well or more. Always ask your doctor or surgeon about other possible choices.

3. What Are the Benefits of Having the Operation?

Ask your surgeon what you will gain by having the operation. For example, hip replacement may mean that you can walk again with ease. Ask how long the benefits are likely to last. For some procedures, it is not unusual for the benefits to last for a short time only. There might be a need for a second operation at a later date. For other procedures, the benefits may last a lifetime. Be realistic. Some patients expect too much and are disappointed with the results.

4. What Are the Risks of Having the Operation?

All surgery carries some risk. This is why you need to weigh the benefits of having the operation against the risk of complications or side effects. There is almost always some pain with surgery. Ask how much you can expect and what the health-care providers will do to reduce pain.

5. 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. But you must also decide what the likely outcome will be for the condition -- it could stay the same, continuing to cause pain, it could get worse, or it could clear up on its own -- if you choose not to have the surgery.

6. What Is Your Experience in Performing This Surgery?

One way to reduce the risks of surgery is to choose a surgeon who has been thoroughly trained in the procedure you are considering. Besides asking the surgeon directly, you can also ask your primary-care physician about the surgeon's qualifications.

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