Seek Out Super-Specialists
Patients should look for surgeons with the most experience performing the surgery they need, especially for complex procedures. More experience with a specific procedure reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, the risk of complications, experts say.
Experts advise patients to verbally and contractually confirm who will be leading the surgery. Medical residents often participate in minor procedures, particularly at university hospitals.
“It’s fine for residents to assist, but if you’ve gone through the trouble of vetting a top doctor, it’s reassuring to know who will be holding the scalpel. Ask your surgeon point-blank, ‘Are you going to be doing this surgery?’ ” says Teri Dreher, owner of NShore Patient Advocates.
Bring a Plus-One to Interviews
When interviewing doctors for a procedure, bring along a friend or family member.
Patient advocates say having a support system helps in figuring out which questions to ask and to make sure you’ve remembered to cover all your bases.
“It can be a disorienting time,” says Elizabeth Bailey, a patient advocate and the author of The Patient’s Checklist. “It’s best to bring another set of eyes and ears with you.”
You’ll be seeing your surgeon a lot — before, during, and after your procedure. It’s important to determine whether this doctor is a reliable figure who will care for you with a consistent level of attention. “Look at their demeanor — are they responsive to you, your questions, and your concerns?” Bailey says.
Doctors often refer patients to specialists based on professional relationships, but that doesn’t always mean they’re vouching for bedside manner. Ask nurses, hospital employees, or friends about their experiences with specific doctors to find out if they have reputations for being compassionate.
“Someone who treats nurses and other employees poorly likely treats patients poorly,” says Dreher. “You want a doctor who is kind, because they will go above and beyond the call of duty.”
Get Second Opinions
Advisers recommend speaking with two or more doctors before making a final selection, since different doctors will likely have different opinions about how to proceed. One factor to keep in mind is whether a doctor favors a more minimally invasive approach.
“Always get a second opinion, maybe sometimes even a third,” says Bailey. “Any surgeon worth their salt would encourage getting multiple opinions.”
Check Your Surgeon’s Work
Do a background check for three key red flags: surgical complications, postoperative infections, and medical malpractice lawsuits. For medical malpractice records, search the Illinois Department of Finance and Professional Regulation website at idfpr.com and click on the Physician Profile link. Other websites, such as those of Healthgrades and Castle Connolly (which compiles Top Doctors), also may be useful. For statistics relating to a surgeon’s rates of complication and postoperative infection, consult with a physician liaison or ask the doctor directly. Experts recommend looking for surgeons with a postoperative infection rate lower than 2 percent. Surgeons should be forthcoming.
“A lot of people are scared to ask surgeons about their complication record, but it’s so important to ask,” says Bailey.