14 Questions to Ask the Surgeon Before Your Family Member Goes Into the OR

Ruben Castaneda

Help your loved one prepare for an operation and quick recovery.

If you have a family member who's preparing for surgery, it's a good idea to accompany him or her to a pre-procedure visit with the surgeon, and not just to provide emotional support, says Dr. Diya Alaedeen, a general surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. Many patients he's performed surgery on were extremely anxious or even in a state of shock over the prospect of their imminent procedure and retained little or none of the information he provided, Alaedeen says. "Loved ones can help with that." It's a good idea for a relative or close friend of someone scheduled for surgery to accompany the patient to ask questions and take notes. "Often, the patient remembers one thing: surgery," Alaedeen says. "Loved ones may be able to remember the answers the surgeon is providing better than the patient."

Here are 14 questions you should ask the surgeon on behalf of a family member awaiting a surgical procedure:

1. Can we get a second opinion?

Many patients are reluctant to ask whether they should get a second opinion because they fear offending the surgeon, says Marlon Saria, an advanced practice nurse researcher at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. It's important to keep in mind that most medical professionals will be perfectly fine with a patient, or a patient's loved one, asking for a second opinion. "The second opinion may not change the surgical plan but (your loved one) will go into surgery with peace of mind they have all the information needed to make the decision (to undergo surgery)," Saria says.

2. What non-surgical options are available?

Undergoing any surgical procedure should never be taken lightly, says Dr. Travis Scudday, an orthopedic surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California. "Today, there are more non-surgical alternatives than in years past," Scudday says. Raising this issue ensures that your loved one has a full discussion about his or her options before going into the operating room. For example, someone who's living with obesity and wants to lose weight may choose to try other options, like changing his or her eating habits and developing an exercise routine, instead of undergoing bariatric surgery.

3. How will the procedure be done?

Some patients are confused about the type of surgery they're about to undergo, particularly if they've done research on the internet, which "contains a lot of information but little knowledge," Alaedeen says. Inquiring about how the procedure will be done can help clarify what the patient should expect. This gives the surgeon the opportunity, for example, to explain whether the procedure will be open (a traditional method in which the surgeon uses a scalpel) or if the patient will undergo laparoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive approach involving a thin device that produces smaller wounds. Laparoscopic procedures typically involve smaller wounds and shorter recovery times than open surgery. Robotic-assisted surgery is another option the doctor could explain.

4. Can family members donate blood if it's needed?

Many family members want to help a loved one undergoing surgery however they can and are willing to donate blood. Alaedeen advises relatives who ask this question that the hospital has its own blood supply that is rigorously tested and matched to the patient's blood type should the patient need a transfusion during the procedure.

5. How long will the operation take?

This is another way for a loved one to ask, "How long should the operation last before I should start to get worried?" Alaedeen says. The patient often doesn't care, because he or she will be under anesthesia and not aware of the time.

The response to this question depends on the specific operation. For example, gallbladder removal surgery -- the most common surgical procedure in the U.S., according to Alaedeen -- typically takes an hour to 90 minutes. Be sure to ask the surgeon to include prep time in his or her response.

6. Can I communicate with operating room staff during the surgery?

Family members of a patient undergoing surgery can often get updates from the operating room during the procedure, Alaedeen says. The Cleveland Clinic provides pagers to family members; a staff member, usually a nurse, provides updates from the operating room. The Cleveland Clinic does this for all operations, Alaedeen says. Ask your operating room team if they provide communications tools, so you can get updates as the surgery is in progress.

7. What are the most common complications associated with the procedure?

This is a good question to ask on behalf of a loved one preparing for surgery, because he or she may not be thinking about potential complications, Scudday says. As a follow-up, it's a good idea to inquire about the rates of surgical complications. "A 1% chance of complication is much different than a 10% chance," he says. "Surgeons are not offended by these questions and are happy to discuss the specific research on the planned surgery. It's impossible to discuss every complication possible associated with a medical procedure. When discussing possible hip or knee replacements with patients, I'll go over the three to five most common complications."

8. What's likely to happen if my relative doesn't have this operation?

Depending on the surgeon's response, your family member may consider deferring the operation until his or her condition worsens, says Dr. Kurt Kroenke, a research scientist at the Regenstrief Institute and professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine. "Some conditions remain stable for long periods of time," Kroenke says. For example, cataract surgery, knee replacement surgery and hip replacement procedures fall into this category. "In this case, the patient may reasonably elect to defer surgery until the condition worsens, especially if waiting does not affect the outcome of future surgery," Kroenke says.

9. How many times have you done this surgery in the last year?

Research shows that surgeons and surgical centers that perform specific procedures at higher frequency have greater success and fewer complications, on average, than medical professionals and institutions that have less experience, says Dr. Stephen M. Downs, a Regenstrief Institute research scientist and a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine. If the surgeon or facility has little experience with the procedure, you might want to consider other medical professionals for the surgery.

10. Does anyone do this surgery more often?

Some procedures are so unusual that no surgeon or surgery center will have much experience, Downs says. But many surgical procedures are relatively common. "To gauge how experienced your surgeon is, compare (him or her) to others," he says. "It's just comparison shopping." You can do an online search, but websites for this kind of information exist only in a few locales. "Usually, a person would just ask the surgeon," he says. "There is no guarantee she or he will know or be willing to give an answer, but in general, they will."

11. What is the cost of this procedure?

It's a good idea to ask the health care team treating your relative about the costs involved, says Kendra McMillan, a registered nurse and senior policy advisor at the American Nurses Association, which is based in Silver Spring, Maryland. If your relative has health care coverage, ask whether the plan covers the full cost of the procedure. "Work with the care manager or financial manager at the surgery center or hospital to discuss your (relative's) coverage and out-of-pocket expense," McMillan says. Ask about coverage for follow-up appointments, too.

12. What kind of post-op pain should my family member expect?

The response to this question can help the patient and his or her loved ones prepare for post-surgery recovery, Alaedeen says. For example, when is the patient likely to be released from the hospital or clinic after the procedure, and what kind of pain should he or she expect? Will there be a need for over-the-counter or prescription pain medication? To what extent, if any, will pain restrict the loved one's physical activity? How long does the pain typically last before the patient should become concerned?

13. Are there post-surgery dietary restrictions?

Depending on the nature of the procedure, some patients will be restricted to a liquid diet the same day of the surgery and the day after. That's because his or her gastrointestinal tract needs time to recover and resume functioning. A typical post-op diet includes light soups and toast. "No heavy meals," Alaedeen says.

14. When will my family member be independent?

This question means different things for different people, Alaedeen says. For example, an ambulatory patient who needs to take certain pain medications, like opioids, may not be able to drive until he or she is off the meds. Someone who underwent a hip or knee replacement may need to go into a rehabilitation setting after the surgery before going home. Your health care provider's response can assist you as you help your family member plan for his or her recuperation.

To recap, here are 14 questions to ask before surgery:

-- Can we get a second opinion?

-- What non-surgical options are available?

-- How will the procedure be done?

-- Can family members donate blood if it's needed?

-- How long will the operation take?

-- Can I communicate with operating room staff during the surgery?

-- What are the most common complications associated with this procedure?

-- What's likely to happen if my relative doesn't have this operation?

-- How many times have you done this surgery in the last year?

-- Does anyone do this surgery more often?

-- What is the cost of this procedure?

-- What kind of post-op pain should my family member expect?

-- Are there post-surgery dietary restrictions?

-- When will my family member be independent?