Protect Health Care

10 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before a Major Surgery

Michelle Seitzer  |  August 17, 2018

What questions to ask your doctor of medical care provider before a major surgery. And no, you shouldn't look at WebMD or your coworker’s mother’s friend.

The date’s locked in, your leave time’s been requested and now you anxiously await the big day.

Preparedness is the best antidote to panic, but most of your medical questions should be directed to your doctor — not WebMD or your coworker’s mother’s friend.

Not sure what to ask? Let these insights from experienced health care professionals and surgery “veterans” guide you. Ask these 10 questions before your major surgery – and rest assured, everything’s going to be just fine. 

How Long Will It Take?

When my daughter had major surgery, I hadn’t realized how much time the whole process would take — even before the first incision was made. Besides several pre-op appointments — which happened two days before the surgery — the preparations on the morning of (checking in, signing forms, taking vitals, going over the procedure, administering anesthesia, etc.) took nearly three hours. The actual surgery took five hours, and another hour or two passed before she woke up from the anesthesia and was stable enough to move to a room. From that point, we expected a hospital stay of up to five days.

While we sat in the waiting room, we watched many other parents come and go, some only waiting 10 minutes before they were called back to see their children. Every surgery is different, and if unexpected complications arise, your wait time may increase; sometimes, procedure time may be shorter than expected. Your doctor should be able to give you a general idea of the surgery’s duration and subsequent stay until discharge.

Who’s Holding the Scalpel?

Kristen Demshock, a registered nurse in Horsham, Pennsylvania, recommends asking your doctor if she personally will perform the procedure or if an associate or resident will. This is an important question, particularly for surgeries in teaching hospitals.

Find out how often your surgeon performs this procedure too, says Forrest Persing, a surgical physician’s assistant in Tyler, Texas. There’s a big difference between a surgeon who’s performed 100 similar surgeries in the past year and a surgeon who’s performed 100 similar surgeries in her first year of residency 20 years ago.

What Will It Cost?

Don’t leave this one hanging. Before going into your procedure, get a clear sense of what the surgery will cost, including the care in the days following. Know what your insurance will cover and what you may need to pay out of pocket. Be sure to inquire about the surgery itself, such as the charges for the operating room, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist; for your hospital stay; and for any follow-up therapies, medications/supplements, and equipment, like a wheelchair, walker or hospital bed.

Also consider the small expenses that can quickly add up in the hospital, like WiFi and data plans, meals and snacks or parking. As you plan for the recovery period, stash a few extra days in your leave bank and set aside money for additional childcare should you need to miss more work than expected — or if you’re not feeling as strong as you’d hoped.

What Are the Risks?

Most likely, the risks have already been explained to you, but some information is worth repeating — and it’s never too late to ask more questions. Depending on the type of surgery, you may want to inquire about survival rates, potential complications and how your body may react to the procedure.

How Will My Family Know How I’m Doing?

Before you’re under anesthesia, find out how waiting family and friends will be updated on your progress. This will likely depend on the length of surgery.

For my daughter’s five-hour procedure, we were given an update within the first hour on “the basics” (how she did with the anesthesia, what they found when they opened her up, etc.) and then were updated every hour or so until completion. You might also consider designating one family member as a point person who will communicate to concerned loved ones who aren’t at the hospital.

What About Visitors?

The outcome of your surgery — and your projected recovery time — may determine the answer here. But especially if you have young children, you’ll want to find out how soon — or even if — they can visit you in the hospital. The risk of infection may be too great in some cases.

Remember: restrictions on visits are enforced for your benefit. Seeing your loved ones can be stressful — on both sides. Phone calls, flowers and cards are effective mood-boosters that allow you to focus on resting for a quicker release.

When we were in the hospital with our daughter, I was surprised at how “busy” our days could get with therapy, vital checks, equipment fittings and more. Rest was rare given the many interruptions. She also required a blood transfusion, which was unexpected and took several hours. So don’t be afraid to turn away visitors. Your recovery is priority No. 1.

What Medications Should I Stop Taking Before Surgery?

If you’re already on certain medications before the surgery, find out when to stop them in advance, Persing advises. Some prescription drugs may need to be completely out of your system before you go under, so if your doctor or nurse practitioner doesn’t cover this in a pre-op discussion, be sure to ask.

In many cases, you’ll be given specific instructions on bathing and preparing your body in the hours before surgery. These measures are vital for infection control while in surgery and for your hospital stay.

What Are My Pain Management Options Post-Op?

What medications will you be given in the hospital, and what will you go home with? Will you be able to get prescriptions filled in the hospital, or can someone fill them for you when you return home?

For mom Amy Haman, of Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, whose teenage son had a prosthetic lung implanted, the risks of addiction to pain meds was a real fear. What interactions and side effects might certain medications cause? Who do you call if you have problems with medications, especially after office hours?

Make sure to take careful notes — or have a health advocate do so on your behalf — on all the medication information. Try installing an app on your phone to help you manage dosage times and amounts.

What Will Recovery Involve?

Recovery is two parts: in the hospital and at home. Sarah Bratt of Perkiomenville, Pennsylvania, who has a chronic illness that has required multiple surgeries, suggests finding out whether any type of therapy will be needed and for how long. Also, find out how many follow-up appointments will be needed, as well as the frequency of these visits.

Rachel Yoder of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, whose children with special needs have required many complex surgeries, recommends pinning down a contact person and preferred procedure for questions that come up after discharge.

“You may be able to contact the doctor directly for a time, depending on the situation, instead of calling the usual after hours line,” she says. Some hospitals may have a secure online communications system to handle these questions as well.

When Can I Go Back to ‘Normal’ Life?

Once the surgery is behind you, it’s not necessarily business as usual. When can you drive again? When can you be intimate with your partner? When can you shower? Or resume your usual diet? Persing says to ask all of these questions and find out if there are any weight-bearing or lifting restrictions post-op. Be sure to ask for documentation from your doctor, should you need any accommodations at work following the surgery.

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