Frequently Asked Questions

Important Questions To Ask Before Having Surgery


Millions of South Africans will undergo surgery each year. It is important to be informed about the surgery being recommended, particularly if it is elective surgery (an operation you choose to have done), rather than an emergency surgery. All surgeries have risks and benefits. It's important to understand them before deciding whether the procedure is appropriate for you.

The following are important questions to review with your healthcare provider before surgery. Ask your healthcare provider to explain the answers clearly and ask for further explanation if you are having trouble understanding an explanation and/or any medical terms. Some people find it helpful to write their questions down ahead of time.

It is important to remember that a well-informed patient tends to be more satisfied with the outcome or results of a procedure:

1What is the operation being recommended?
Your healthcare provider should clearly explain the surgical procedure, such as the steps involved and provide you with examples. You should ask if there are different methods for doing this operation and why he or she favors one way over another.
2Why is the procedure needed?
Reasons to have surgery may vary from relieving or preventing pain to diagnosing a problem to improving body function. Ask your healthcare provider to specifically explain why this procedure is being recommended for you and make sure you understand how this may improve your medical condition.
3What are my alternatives to this procedure? Are there other treatment choices available based on my current medical condition?
In some cases, medicine or nonsurgical treatments, such as lifestyle changes, may be as helpful in improving a condition as surgery. Your healthcare provider should clearly explain the benefits and risks of these choices so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not surgery is necessary. Sometimes "watchful waiting" is indicated, in which the healthcare provider will monitor your condition over time to observe changes and the progression of a disease. You may still need surgery, or if your condition improves or stabilizes, you may be able to postpone surgery. After a period of "watchful waiting," it may be determined that surgery is still the best choice.
4What are the benefits of the surgery and how long will they last?
It is important that your healthcare provider outline the specific benefits of having surgery for you. You should also ask how long the benefits typically last. Some benefits only last a short time, and could possibly need a second operation, while others may last a lifetime.

Also, ask your healthcare provider about published information regarding the outcomes of the recommended procedure. This will allow you to make an informed decision and have realistic expectations about the surgery.
5What are the risks and possible complications of having the operation?
Surgery always carries some risks, so it is important to weigh the benefits against the risks before surgery. Ask your healthcare provider to outline the possible complications, such as infection and bleeding, and possible side effects that could follow the procedure. Be sure to understand when you should notify your healthcare provider or seek immediate medical attention for complications. You should also discuss pain and ways to manage any pain that may follow the procedure.
6What happens if you do not have the operation?
If you decide, after weighing the benefits and risks of the surgery, not to have the operation, what will happen? You need to know whether the condition will worsen or if there is a possibility that it may resolve itself.
7Should I get a second opinion?
In certain cases, some health plans may require patients to have a second opinion before undergoing elective surgery. Your healthcare provider should be able to supply you with the names of qualified individuals who also do the procedure.
8What is the healthcare provider's experience in doing this procedure?
You can minimize the risks of surgery by choosing a healthcare provider who is thoroughly trained and experienced in doing the procedure. You may ask the healthcare provider about his or her experience with the procedure being done, including the number of times he or she has done it, and his or her record of successes, as well as complications.
9Where will the surgery be performed?
Until recently, most surgery was done in hospitals. Today, however, many procedures are done on an outpatient basis or in ambulatory surgical centers. This lowers the cost of these procedures since you are not paying for a hospital room. Certain procedures may still need to be done on an inpatient basis. Your overall health is also considered when making a decision as to where the operation will be done. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider why he or she recommends either setting.
10What type of anesthesia will be administered?
Your healthcare provider should tell you whether a local, regional, or general anesthesia will be given and why this type of anesthesia is recommended for your procedure. You should also ask who will be giving the anesthesia (such as an anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist; both of whom are highly qualified to give anesthesia) and ask to meet with that person before your operation.
11What can I expect during recovery?
Ask your healthcare provider what to expect in the first few days following surgery, as well as in the weeks and months that follow. You need to know how long you will be hospitalized, what limitations will be placed on you, and if there are special supplies or equipment you will need when discharged. Knowing ahead of time what to expect will help you to cope and recover more quickly following the surgery. You should also ask about the typical length of time it takes for a full recovery to resume work and your everyday activities.
12What are the costs of this operation?
Because health plans vary in their coverage of different procedures, there may be costs you will be responsible for. You will need to know what the specific costs of the operation will be and how much your insurance or health plan will cover. This information is not typically available to the healthcare provider.