When patients have mitral valve disease, the small flaps that open and close to let oxygen-rich blood flow through the heart do not work as they should. Choosing the right surgeon to fix a leaky mitral valve—which can cause blood to flow backwards into the lungs and often leads to shortness of breath and chest pain—is a critical decision. 

Now a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reveals that patients who chose surgeons with deep experience in performing this complex procedure had a better chance of living longer and not needing additional procedures to correct the problem.

“The very high-volume surgeons tended to have outstanding outcomes,” says Joanna Chikwe, M.D., professor of cardiovascular surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the lead author of the new study.

The median number of mitral valve procedures performed by the surgeons studied was 10 operations per year, but those patients whose surgeons performed at least 25 surgeries per year had much higher survival rates and fewer complications, the study found.

The key takeaway for patients is that you can increase your odds of surgical success by using hard data (especially a doctor’s track record) to help you find a skilled, experienced surgeon.

“The choice of the surgeon and the institution—when it comes to mitral valve and all complex heart surgery—can really affect a patient’s prognosis,” says Subodh Verma, M.D., a cardiac surgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor of surgery at the University of Toronto. “An empowered patient is a safe patient.” 

Here's what you need to keep in mind so that you can make an informed decision:

How to Choose a Heart Surgeon

  • Talk to your cardiologist. He or she should have a thorough understanding of the strengths and experiences of the surgeons you’re being referred to, Chikwe says. Press for specifics; find out whether a surgeon performs a large number of the specific type of surgery you need.
  • Ask a potential surgeon detailed questions. You should know how many valves like yours a surgeon has repaired; an ideal amount is 25 or more within the past year and “hundreds” over the course of a career, Chikwe says. And a higher repair rate is better; some surgeons in the study had repaired 100 percent of the valves they'd operated on in the past year (though Verma says there are cases when replacement is the right decision).
  • Pay attention to past results. You can use Consumer Reports’ data-backed heart hospital ratings to help you choose a hospital for aortic valve replacement and cardiac bypass. And hospitals should provide outcomes data for mitral valve procedures when asked, Verma says.