How to find the right surgeon

Last updated: September 2010

Even relatively straightforward surgeries like gallbladder removal or hernia repair can sometimes cause serious complications, so you always want to be in good surgical hands. But the surgeon—and hospital staff—can be especially important for operations that are new or unusually complex, or that are being done to treat a potentially fatal disease like cancer. Here are some tips on finding the surgeon and hospital that are best for your situation.

One indicator is how often surgeons and hospitals perform a procedure. That can be vital for operations that are relatively new, such as gastric bypass surgery for treating obesity. While many surgeons have started performing the operation, not all are qualified. A September 2009 study found that the risk of serious complications from the most common form of gastric bypass surgery fell by 10 percent for every additional 10 cases per year the surgeon had performed.

Volume may also be especially important for unusually complicated procedures. For example, a study by researchers at New Hampshire's Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center of people undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer found that annual death rates were nearly four times higher for those treated by surgeons who performed the fewest operations.

But quantity isn't the only or even most important measure of quality. A May 2009 study of 81,289 adults who had heart bypass surgery, for example, found that success depended more on how well surgeons and hospitals adhered to various markers of surgical excellence—such as using the appropriate technique during the operation and prescribing the right medications before and afterward—than the number of procedures performed.

And a study of more than 10,700 prostate cancer operations found that complication rates varied considerably even among those that were performed by high-volume surgeons. The authors concluded that experienced surgeons and hospitals still need to monitor their success and complication rates better and work to improve their techniques and safety measures.

Question your surgeon

Ask your prospective surgeon these questions before going under the knife:

Is surgery really necessary? The best way to avoid surgical errors is to avoid surgery entirely, so ask about the effectiveness and safety of alternatives. Compare those with the risks of surgery and the chance that it will help you.

Is your board certification up to date? Look for a surgeon who has undergone the necessary training, even after being in clinical practice, to maintain board certification in his or her specialty. So check your doctor's credentials.

What's your experience? Ask how many operations the surgeon has performed in the past year and how that compares with his or her peers. "It's not that you have to find the busiest, most experienced surgeon in North America," says Andrew Auerbach, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and an expert in surgical outcomes. "It's more about avoiding the guy who does very few of the procedures, especially in a place that does very few."

What are your success, failure, and complication rates? Not all will be able or willing to tell you, but the good ones should be.

What's the hospital's infection rate? Seventeen states now make that information public, and many hospitals report their rates voluntarily. See our hospital Ratings to help you choose.

High-risk procedures

Research suggests it's especially critical to scrutinize the experience, qualifications, and success and complication rates of the surgeon and hospital for these operations:

  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, an operation to prevent the rupture of a weakened aorta, the body's main artery.
  • Cancer surgery
  • Carotid endarterectomy, an operation to clear clogged arteries in the neck.
  • Heart bypass surgery
  • Heart-valve replacement

Sharp differences in quality may exist in other high-risk surgeries that haven't been studied as much. It makes sense to treat as high-risk any rare or relatively new procedure in which only a limited number of surgeons and hospitals are likely to have adequate experience.


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