How to Select Your Surgeon

This is a sponsored column by Catherine Bertram, Attorney at Law. Catherine is a Northwest Washington, D.C.-based attorney with over 25 years experience in medical malpractice cases, including those involving wrongful death.

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By Catherine Bertram

The decision to have surgery is never easy, but the decision to consider most carefully is who will be your surgeon. It’s a decision that is often the difference between a successful surgery and not.

According to a ProPublica study, about 11% of surgeons account for more than 25% of surgical complications. Here are the first 6 questions to ask a potential surgeon, so you can make the best decision possible about which one to use:

Is this surgery really necessary?
There are risks with all surgeries and any time anesthesia is used. Make sure the surgery is necessary and really needs to be done right now. Ask about all the recognized alternatives. Always ask what would happen if you put off the surgery.

Can this surgery be done with minimally invasive techniques?
Many surgeries can now be performed laparoscopically or with the use of a robotic device. In many circumstances minimally invasive techniques may result in no hospital stay, or just an overnight trip and with a smaller incision and less recovery time. Find out if this option is available and if not, you may want to consider getting a second opinion from a teaching hospital or a surgeon who uses the most up-to-date technology.

Is my surgeon board certified?
You can check this by calling 866-ASK-ABMS or by checking www.abms.org.

What is the surgeon’s experience level and how frequently does the surgeon perform the surgery you need?
Several large studies have concluded that surgeons who frequently perform a specific surgery generally have better outcomes. Ask how many of these surgeries your surgeon performs and how that compares to her or his peers? If a surgeon is not performing the surgery in question every two or three weeks, you may want to get a second opinion.

What is the surgeon’s success/failure/complication rate for this surgery?
Contrary to what most would think is polite, you can ask the surgeon for this information. A good, experienced surgeon will not be offended and will be able to tell you the facts.

What hospital does the surgeon operate at and what is that hospital’s infection rate?
You can check on hospitals and surgeons at www.ProPublica.com. You can search by zip code and review what information is available about hospitals and surgeons in your area.

Catherine Bertram is a Washington, D.C. trial lawyer who has been working on issues involving patient safety for more than 25 years. She was previously the Director of Risk Management at MedStar Georgetown Hospital, and she currently resides and practices law in the District of Columbia. She works as a patient advocate for families, as well as those who are seriously injured or lose their lives as a result of preventable medical errors.