Interview Your Surgeon

For most people, when you’re at a point in life where you need surgery, you’re not feeling exactly empowered or willing to grill your doctor on his or her exact qualifications. But you should, says—of all groups—the American College of Surgeons. Thomas Russell, the organization’s executive director and a surgeon, says, “Patients should feel free to ask their surgeon anything they want answered about the operation or the surgeon’s competency to perform it. There are no questions that should be off the table.”

In a new book to be published this month, “I Need an Operation…Now What? A Patient’s Guide to a Safe and Successful Outcome,” Dr. Russell provides patients with lists of questions for surgeons, including their success rates, how many operations they perform in a year, and whether they have any health issues of their own that would interfere with their ability to do the procedure. While he suggests using a respectful and nonconfrontational tone, he also urges patients to “size up” the surgeon’s communication skills — and avoid those who are unresponsive, distracted or rushed.

“Learning to Ask Tough Questions Of Your Surgeon” [The Wall Street Journal via InsureBlog]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. mattpr says:

    Two things:

    (1) If you’re getting the surgery done at a teaching hospital, the majority of the operation will likely done by a resident.

    (2) Show me a surgeon who isn’t “distracted” or “rushed”, then please also show me the needle you just found in the haystack. These guys work 100+ hours a week. Cut them some slack.

  2. RenardRouge says:

    Is that Mr. Bean? I guess it would be Dr. Bean.

  3. RenardRouge says:

    Is that Mr. Bean? I guess it would be Dr. Bean…

  4. Cerb says:

    As for the above posters comments. It’s true that any operation done at a teaching hospital is likely to be done by a resident. However, they should have an attending physician looking over their work (depending on the surgery, and level of residency training already completed).

    As for the OP, of course it makes sense to ask the surgeon some questions about his qualifications! You wouldn’t want someone with very little experience doing a particular procedure working on you.

  5. Miss d says:

    Sadly people like Donda West fail to ask their surgeon such questions…

  6. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @mattpr: Are you sure about that? a hundred sounds a bit much, i mean maybe the time they spend, in the hospital, but 100 hours of sugery is relay taxing on the mind and back, besides surgeons don’t just walk in the OR and start slicing you up, they have to review the data and see the best way to approach it, but yeah, their job is taxing and nerve racking, thoug some maybe just standard procedure, some operations can scare the shit out of even the most efficient multitaskers

  7. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    You should be fine unless you’re operated on by ‘Doctors’ Millbarge and Fitz-Hume.
    “I shall now incise.”

  8. Snakeophelia says:

    My first office visit with my surgeon lasted at least 45 minutes. Not rushed at all. Granted, we started an hour late, but that wasn’t a surprise. I found him very easy to talk to and very willing to answer all my questions, and that definitely helped me make up my mind to use him for my (elective) surgery.

  9. mindshadow says:

    Another interesting thing is that a lot of doctors can claim they’ve done a surgery X amount of times even if they didn’t really do the surgery. My good friend’s wife was talking about when she was doing her residency and sitting in on a surgery a lot of doctors kept coming in and touching the patient’s toe. She finally asked what was going on and they told her that they were doing it so they could say they participated in the surgery (e.g. putting “Performed open heart surgery 20 times” on their resume). Basically as long as they’re scrubbed up and touch the patient it counts.

    Not really relevant to this story, but it’s something to keep in mind when interviewing doctors and surgeons.

  10. mattpr says:


    Most surgeons work 5AM to about 6 or 7 PM plus call. It’s the most demanding medical specialty, bar none, and probably the most time consuming next to OB-GYN.

  11. bohemian says:

    I had inpatient surgery once. I have no clue who actually did the surgery but I don’t think it was the person I talked to at the clinic months before. It really unnerved me after the whole thing because they were running people through the surgery like an assembly line. It was very clear a couple of times that the staff were rushed and had no clue about anything unless they looked at your chart.

    I did have a minor outpatient surgery done. The clinic doctor was very up front that this procedure was not his forte but one of the other doctors at the clinic is very skilled at it and does them all the time. I appreciated the honesty and handing me off to the person who was good at it. Though I didn’t meet him until they were ready to do the thing.

  12. dgcaste says:

    Dr. Turk isn’t that rushed, he’s obviously got time to fool around the hospital with JD and blonde doctor.

  13. shaken_bake says:

    Another thing to ask about is the anesthesiologist – if they screw up, you could be just as dead as if the surgeon botches the operation. How much control does the surgeon get over who’s the gas passer in your operation? Does he/she know and trust them, or are they just assigned whomever’s available at the time?

    One thing I learned when my husband was rushed to the ER with severe but identified abdominal pain is that surgeons live to cut, and if at all possible, try to get a second opinion about whether surgery is absolutely necessary. He had a twisted colon and the surgeon on call wanted to operate immediately. Luckily, a gastro doc was called in and advised that we could wait a little while to see if the situation resolved by itself – it did, no surgery needed. I know when people are in extreme pain, that they’ll do anything the doctors tell them, but sometimes it pays to ask someone else.

  14. darkclawsofchaos says:

    @mattpr: ob-gyn I will give you, they are in surgery all the time, but the others have long hours but they are not operating all those hous all the time, they also do data reviews and maybe a few follow ups especially for patients with complications

  15. Anomaly69 says:

    I would highly recommend interviewing your doctors and even checking up on their history. I had what should have been a simple oral surgery go badly wrong. I got an infection that resulted in bone and teeth loss and eventually the loss of most feeling in my lips. All the while the surgeon was saying things like “it will clear up”, and “this is normal”.

    I tried to sue but no lawyer would take the case because he works for a state institution.

    Thanks for less than nothing Dr. Omar Abubaker of Medical College of Virginia.

    Feel free to send him some nastygrams. Don’t make my mistake, check out who’s going to be cutting on you.