Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Have

By Carol Lewis
From the FDA Consumer Magazine November-December 1998

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.

7. What kind of anesthesia will I need?

Your surgeon can tell you whether the
operation calls for local anesthesia (a numbing of only a part of the
body for a short time), regional anesthesia (a numbing of a larger
portion of the body for a few hours), or general anesthesia (a numbing
of the entire body for the entire time of the surgery) and why this form
of anesthesia is recommended for your procedure. Ask what the side
effects and risks of having anesthesia are in your case. Be sure to
mention any medical problems you have, including allergies, and any
medications you have been taking, since they may affect your response to
the anesthesia.