Orthopedic surgeons are indispensable members of the health profession and have a level of anatomical and biomechanical knowledge and a degree of experience that is rarely surpassed.
However, if you’ve ever been for a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon, you’ll know how fast the appointment passes. Many of our patients have reported being in-and-out without feeling like they’ve said more than 10 words.
Most consults will last 10-15 minutes and within this short space the surgeon has a certain “volume” of assessment to conduct and information they MUST deliver. It’s easy to see why they can occupy most of consultation to you leaving little opportunity for questions or express your opinion. When the opportunity finally arises, many patients are so bombarded with information that they forget the questions that had been circling in their head for days!
The surgeon is not to blame here as they are exceptionally busy individuals and with a huge demand on their limited time and wealth of knowledge and experience.
However, it makes it imperative that you use the time well and ask direct and concise questions to ensure you leave the session fully informed and able to make the decision that is best for you in your unique situation.
We decided to put together a list of questions that you should leave the consultation with the answers to. We’d recommend you print the 5 questions (and add any others you think of) and review them quickly before leaving the consultation to ensure you don’t leave with unaddressed concerns.
1. Is there any way that I can AVOID surgery and how would outcomes compare if I took this option?
ALWAYS ASK THIS QUESTION.
There is ALWAYS an alternative when it comes to surgery.
For example, considering a shoulder dislocation in a young male AFL player, a stabilisation surgery is highly recommended. Without surgery, this patient would have at least a 70% risk of the injury recurring. In contrast, with a Latarjet stabilisation he could expect as low as a 2.7% risk of recurrence.
However, you always have choices. You could try and be one of the 30% who survive non-operatively. Likewise some patients might have no desire to return to AFL and consider moving to a less “risky” sport such as triathlons where an operation is completely unnecessary. So even though we would recommend the stabilisation surgery in general, for 3 different people, they may choose 3 different options based on their own preferences.
To sum up, there is never a single option and you need to ask this question to have accurate information to allow you to weigh up the positives and negatives of all your options and make the right choice for you.
2. How long CAN it take to recover - worst case scenario? What will I feel/how painful will it be?
Yes, the problem/pathology may be fixed with surgery, but the soft tissue that is disrupted in the process will be painful and take some time to recover from. This obviously depends on the nature of the surgery but it will almost always be very painful initially.
Everyone asks how long it will take to recover. The surgeon will often tell you how long it usually takes based on average outcomes.
However, humans are complex and varied creatures, and so surgery is not like changing a part on a car.
For example, if a surgeon advises that you CAN start walking crutch-free at 7 days-post does not mean that you WILL. Some may be ready at 4 days, while some may take 14.
Many patients get disheartened because they’re running behind the timeline, or because a friend had the same procedure and was much better at this point. However, the timeline is based on the average recovery, and your friend may be an unusually high performer due to a whole host of factors such as severity of condition, genetics and specific surgical differences.
To manage these complex situations, it’s always a good option to ask the surgeon how long it CAN take and ask for the worst case scenario. It’s important to not catastrophize about this as it is an unlikely outcome, but knowing it can help prevent frustration when your’re running behind the average timeline. This also gives us a clear definition to differentiate between things are going slowly and things are going wrong.
3. Are there other ways to do this surgery? Why have we chosen this variation?
This question will get a bit technical and some may prefer not to worry about it, but there are many ways of surgically achieving your goal.
Clinical trials help provide us with some answers as to which way is the most likely to be effective, but also provide an insight as to what can go wrong.
For example, to revisit shoulder dislocations, there are two surgical approaches most commonly used: the Latarjet procedure or an arthroscopic bankart repart.
There is now a solid amount of research indicating a higher rate of return to sport and a lower rate of recurrence of dislocation with a Latarjet. However, it is also associated with a slightly higher risk of adverse effects, so the decision is not always cut-and-dry.
Similarly, with and ACL reconstruction, choice of graft (hamstring, quad, patellar etc), tunnel location, single or double bundle, nerve block used can all effect outcome. Many factors influence the surgeons decision, and they will undoubtedly offer the best solution in their opinion. While you do no need to have personal knowledge on any of the above, we think it’s a good idea to obtain this information and understand WHY they have made the decisions they have.
It’s a good idea to write this down too as the technical terms are usually hard to recall.
4. How many of these procedures do you perform a year?
There is a body of research regarding total knee replacement operations and ACL repairs that consistently associates higher yearly volume (how many a year the surgeon performs) with fewer infections, shorter procedure time, shorter hospital stays, lower rate of transfusion, and better outcomes in the long-term. Research on other procedures is less available, but it’s safe to extrapolate that experience matters, just like any other profession.
If the surgeon has a relatively low yearly volume, it doesn’t mean that they will do a bad job as they will have undergone may procedures in their training and education.
Likewise, certain procedures as less commonly performed (e.g. repair of a complex bone break) so a high yearly volume is not feasible.
In any case, it’s worth asking how often they perform the procedure. If they perform a low number annually (<10 on a common procedure such as TKR), you could consider politely inquire if they have colleagues that specialize in this procedure and perform it more often.
With something as serious as a surgical procedure, you are always entitled to a second opinion. A good surgeon will have the self-awareness to know when they are and are not the right person for the job. If they can confidently assure you they have the necessary skill-set and experience, then you leave the consult knowing you are in safe hands.
5. Always ask YOURSELF, do I understand the diagnosis and/or the proposed solution? Test this by trying to summarize the information to you surgeon before you leave.
It’s a simple place to finish but make sure you fully understand what your surgeon has told you in the first place as errors in communication are so common in this situation.
The true test of this comes when you go home and try the “family/friend test”. If you can explain your problem well to family/friends, then you probably took the information in effectively. However, if it makes perfect sense in your head at the time, but you struggle to explain it later then you may not have understood it as well as you thought.
To ensure you pass the” family/friends test’, I recommend people try and perform a summary at the end of their consult, e.g.:
“So, if I understand correctly, my problem is that……and the proposed solution would fix this by…….all going well I should expect……but it may take as long as……..”.
This way, your surgeon will be able to highlight and correct anything that got lost in translation on the first occasion.
There you have it – five important questions you should always ask in a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon. Any situation that requires the consideration of surgery is bound to be complex so it’s imperative that you get all the information. These five questions will help keep you focused and ensure you get the information needed to make a fully-informed decision that is right for you and your set of circumstances