Your surgeon’s experience can mean the difference between a good outcome and a poor one

December 1, 2020 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
surgeon's experience

If your doctor has recommended surgery, there are two important steps you should take before agreeing to undergo any procedure. First, seek a second opinion from a physician who has extensive experience treating people with your diagnosis. A second opinion can change or confirm your diagnosis and treatment plan and may provide you with other, non-surgical options to treat your condition.

If you decide to have surgery, your next step should be to learn as much as you can about your surgeon’s experience. Why is knowing how much experience your surgeon has performing the recommended procedure important? Several studies and analyses have found that physicians who do not perform a procedure frequently have higher rates of post-surgical complications and deaths.  One data analysis by U.S. News & World Report found that patients who underwent knee replacement at hospitals that performed a very low number of these procedures had a 50% higher risk of death and 25% higher readmission rate for complications, while hip replacement patients at these hospitals had a 77% higher risk of death and a 25% higher risk of readmission. They found similar risks for heart failure, heart bypass, and COPD patients at low volume hospitals.

A recent report from The Leapfrog Group, an independent healthcare safety organization, concluded that physicians and hospitals should perform a certain number of any given procedures each year to increase patient safety and improve outcomes. However, the report also discovered that most hospitals continue to perform high risk elective surgeries, including cancer and heart surgeries, without the needed experience.

Ask your surgeon these questions

Patients have a key role to play in choosing a surgeon. While your primary care physician or a specialist may recommend a surgeon, you should also take the time to talk with the surgeon and learn as much as possible about your surgeon’s experience, complication rates, outcomes, and your range of treatment options.

As part of your conversation with the surgeon, ask these questions:

  • What are your specific areas of surgical expertise?
  • How many times have you performed the procedure I need in the past twelve months?
  • For how many years have you been performing this surgery and how many times have you done this surgery overall?
  • How often do you perform this surgery at this healthcare facility?
  • Are you board certified and did you undergo fellowship training in your specialty?
  • What is your complication rate for this surgery? What is the death rate?
  • Am I at an elevated risk for complications or poor outcomes due to my health or other factors?
  • Is there a minimally invasive option for this surgery or is open surgery required? What are the risks and benefits of each approach?
  • Who will be the anesthesiologist for this procedure and how experienced is he or she?
  • Are there any risks to waiting or trying other treatment options before having this surgery?

In addition to talking with the surgeon, working with a health advisor can help you gather information on physicians and treatment options, as well as provide help arranging in-person or virtual second opinions with expert physicians.





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