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How to Choose a Surgeon and Hospital for Major Surgery

Research suggests that over the years, patients have become better informed about medical issues. As a result, they increasingly use that information to help them make important healthcare decisions. One such decision is the choice of a surgeon and hospital when faced with the prospect of major surgery. Here’s some information that will help you make these important decisions.

Choosing a Surgeon

Whether your surgeon comes recommended by your primary care physician or you choose to select one on your own, don't take your surgeon's qualifications for granted. Here are some credentials to look for:

  • Board certification —A good sign of a surgeon's competence is certification by a surgical board that is approved by the American Board of Medical Specialties. Surgeons who are board-certified in a surgical specialty have completed years of residency training and demonstrated knowledge and competence by successfully completing a rigorous examination.
  • Fellowship in the American College of Surgeons —The letters FACS (Fellow of the American College of Surgeons) after a surgeon's name mean the surgeon has passed a thorough evaluation of both professional competence and ethical fitness. Fellows are board-certified surgeons who are committed to placing the welfare of their patients above any other consideration.
  • Recommended by a commercial evaluation service —Particularly when outcomes data is not available for your state, hospital, or type of operation, you might consider using one of several commercial, online “Best Doctor” services. (Try searching the Internet using the term “best doctors.”) One such service, , uses a national survey method to solicit doctor recommendations from other prominent doctors. While using a doctor found by such ways doesn’t guarantee excellence, it does allow you to use a surgeon who has received multiple votes of confidence from his peers. These services frequently charge a fee for their recommendations.
  • High surgical volume —Consider asking your surgeon how many of your type of operation they have performed in the past year. Many studies suggest that surgical outcomes tend to be better when surgical volume (the number of cases) is highest. A surgeon who does many of your type of operation each year will probably be a better choice than one who does few. But how many is “many”? Unfortunately, there is no definite answer. While some excellent surgeons can maintain their skills in doing a specific operation without continuing practice, if a doctor is not performing an operation like yours at least every few weeks, you have reason to consider whether a more practiced surgeon might lead to a better outcome. If your surgeon practices in a teaching hospital, be sure to insist that your chosen surgeon, rather than an intern or resident, performs the operation.
  • Practice at a reputable hospital —Choosing a doctor who practices at a highly reputable, accredited hospital, may improve the chances of surgical quality while, again, not guaranteeing it.
Choosing a Hospital

Research shows that some hospitals simply do a better job than others. So how can you find the best hospital for the care you need? Look for the following:

  • Accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) —To determine if a hospital or ambulatory surgery center is accredited, contact your local or state hospital association, or call the hospital and ask if it is accredited either by JCAHO or by the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Healthcare.
  • Rated highly by government, consumer, or other groups —Many government agencies and consumer groups rate hospital performance in one way or another. For example:
    • Your state health department may be able to provide you with information about a local hospital’s quality; Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, California, Maryland, and Virginia, for example, currently have high-quality information on hospitals available to the public. Consumer Reports provides links to many of these sites. Healthgrades charges for some of their services, but does provide free comparisons of hospitals in a given region.
    • The prestigious Leapfrog Group has an online hospital reporting system that, while not limited to surgery, shows the degree to which included hospitals comply with Leapfrog’s evidence-based, patient safety recommendations.
    • US News and World Report publishes a widely received evaluation of US hospitals every year.
  • Has experience and a history of success with your surgery —Most states collect some kind of outcome measures on surgery, such as mortality rates, and much of this information is available to consumers. Many healthcare providers also offer this kind of information to members.
  • Checks quality of care and works to improve it
  • Your doctor practices at the hospital (if that's important to you)
  • Covered by your health plan
Planning Your Surgery
Ask Questions

Be sure to communicate with your doctor, especially if you are not sure about the procedure or why you need it. If you do not know what to ask at the time, write your questions down and ask someone to go with you to your next appointment. Communication via email may be an option under certain conditions. Doctor's offices will protect your confidential medical information, which can easily be accessed by others reading emails. It is important for you and your doctor to discuss what they are willing to answer or if they are open to email communication. You may be able to get some general questions answered, but for other types of information, you will need to make an appointment.

Getting a Second Opinion

Getting a second opinion is a good way to make sure that surgery is the best choice for you. Other considerations include the type of surgery and the timing. Many people are uneasy about seeking another opinion. However, getting a second opinion is a common medical practice encouraged by most doctors. Furthermore, Medicare and many private health insurance companies will help pay for a second opinion because it is also in their best interest to avoid unnecessary surgery. Most Medicaid programs also pay for a second opinion.

Giving Informed Consent

Before having surgery, you'll be asked to provide official written consent. It's important to discuss all of your concerns about your condition and the surgery with your surgeon before you sign this form. In most cases, your surgeon will volunteer a great deal of information, but don't hesitate to ask any questions you still have. Your doctor should be willing to take whatever time is necessary to make sure that you are fully informed.

Determining the Cost and How You Will Pay

Before your surgery, ask about your surgeon's fees. Many surgeons volunteer this information; if yours doesn't, don't hesitate to ask. You can find out about hospital rates from the hospital business office. In addition to surgeons' fees and the costs of hospitalization, you will also be billed for the professional services of others involved in your care, such as the anesthesiologist and medical consultants.

You will probably want to check your health insurance plan to see what portion of these costs it covers. If your insurance plan will not pay all of the anticipated costs and you cannot afford the difference, discuss this situation frankly with your surgeon.

Making the Right Choice

The most important criteria for choosing your surgeon is your ability to trust the doctor. When you meet with your surgeon, speak with and listen carefully to plans and explanations. You need to feel comfortable with what your surgeon says, how it is said, and how relaxed and confident you feel with the level of care.


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

American College of Surgeons

Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations


Accreditation Canada

Health Canada


Birkmeyer J, Stukel T, Siewers AE, et al. Surgeon volume and operative mortality in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2003;349:2117-2127.

Chen J, Radford MJ, Wang Y, et al. Do "America's Best Hospitals" perform better for acute myocardial infarction? N Engl J Med. 1999;340:286-292.

Clancy CM. Do your homework before you choose a hospital. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: Published June 17, 2008. Accessed June 12, 2014.

Considering surgery? National Institute on Aging website. Available at: Updated March 18, 2014. Accessed June 12, 2014.

Krumholz HM, Rathore SS, Chen J, et al. Evaluation of a consumer-oriented internet healthcare report card: the risk of quality ratings based on mortality data. JAMA. 2002 Mar 13; 287:1277-1287.

Nugent WC. In health care, geography is destiny [editorial]. J Thorac Cardiovasc Surg. 2000;120(5).

Patient safety. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Ortho Info website. Available at: Updated December 2013. Accessed June 14, 2014.

Public information from the American College of Surgeons. American College of Surgeons website. Available at: Updated June 4, 2012. Accessed June 14, 2014.

Last reviewed June 2014 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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