Every surgery, even a so-called “minor surgery,” is potentially dangerous. Surgeons may act like God, but they’re only human—and like all humans, they can make mistakes. Hospitals have procedures in place to prevent errors in surgery, but they’re not foolproof. To protect yourself from a potentially serious surgical mistake, I encourage you to follow these steps:
Make sure you understand your doctor’s recommendations. A good physician will be able to communicate—in language that you understand—what your problem is, what your options are, and the course of action he or she recommends. More specifically, ask the following questions:
What benefits can I expect from this surgery?
What are the risks of surgery: complications, failure rates, requirements for repeat surgery?
How long will I have to stay in the hospital, and what is my expected recovery time?
What are my alternatives?
What will happen if I don’t have surgery?
These questions are not unreasonable. Cosmetic surgery patients are routinely given such information so they will have realistic expectations. With other surgeries, however, there is a tendency for patients to just accept and trust whatever they’re told. If your doctor isn’t willing to answer these questions, find a new one.
Get a second opinion. Before you consent to any surgical procedure, make an appointment with another physician—one who is not referred by or involved with your prospective surgeon—to get an unbiased view as to the necessity of the surgery. If the two physicians recommend different courses of action, consider getting a third opinion.
I and the other doctors at the Whitaker Wellness Institute have given thousands of second opinions over the years. In rare cases we have agreed that surgery was the best choice. But most often, we recommended the use of noninvasive treatments first. We encourage patients to take their time, review our findings with their surgeons, and evaluate their options. The decision whether or not to have surgery is a personal one—but it should be made by a well-informed patient with a clear understanding of all the risks and benefits.
- Once you’ve researched all of your options, make the decision that you feel offers the best possible outcome and a level of risk that you are comfortable with. Keep in mind that drugs, like surgery, also have risks.
- Prepare a living will before you go into the hospital to protect your rights and wishes. Select someone you trust to be your health care proxy while you’re in the hospital, and give them a copy of your living will. In the event that you cannot make a decision for yourself (while under anesthesia, for example), your proxy can help ensure that your wishes are carried out.
- Read the hospital consent form carefully. Do not sign it unless you agree with everything that is written on the form, including whether the surgeon will be permitted to do more extensive surgery if problems are discovered during the operation.
- Before the operation, ask whether you can make a large “X” on the body part that is to be operated on using a magic marker. Some hospitals will have you do this as part of their procedure to prevent errors, but if your hospital does not have such a system in place, it is well within your right to ask.
Now it’s your turn: Have you followed any of these steps in the past to ensure a successful surgery?