If you're considering back or neck surgery, selecting the right surgeon is essential for you to have your best chance at achieving pain relief and minimizing potential complications.
But how do you determine who is a good surgeon? While there are many online ratings sites, they tend to provide only peripheral information—and miss the most important point, which is the surgeon's actual outcomes. The ratings include information on factors such as "waiting time," which is pretty irrelevant compared to whether or not the surgery will eliminate or significantly reduce your pain or how many complications the surgeon has had.
Another reason to pay careful attention to the surgeon you select is to get a correct diagnosis. Spine surgery can only address an anatomical problem; if the underlying cause of your pain is not addressed, however, you will have had surgery for no reason. Finding a great spine surgeon will help increase the odds of getting a correct diagnosis and a successful corrective surgery.
So, how do you find a great spine surgeon?
- Don't be shy about asking pointed questions regarding the surgeon's qualifications and experience with the spine surgery you are considering.
Among other questions, you should ask:
- How many times have you performed this type of specific surgery? In general, when it comes to surgery, practice makes perfect. Be sure to ask for specifics—for example, the surgeon may have done a lot of lumbar fusions, but if he is recommending an ALIF make sure he has done a lot of ALIFs already, as an ALIF is very different than other types of fusion and has a steep learning curve.
- Are you board eligible or board certified? You can usually look on the wall and see a certificate. Your surgeon should also be a member of a major spine organization, such as the North American Spine Society or American Board of Spine Surgeons.
- Are you fellowship trained in spine surgery? Having a fellowship-trained surgeon is more important if the surgery is a fusion, an artificial disc replacement, or another extensive procedure.
- If I want to get a second opinion, who would you recommend?
- Statistically, the success rate for this type of surgery is __%. What is your personal success rate, and how many of this type of surgery have you done?
- Can I talk to other patients who have had a similar procedure? The surgeon would have to have a signed consent form from any of his or her patients willing to talk to you, according to HIPAA guidelines.
Any defensiveness on the part of the surgeon when you ask these types of questions may be a red flag. A surgeon with good results and appropriate qualifications will not be threatened by these types of questions and will respect your attention to these matters.
- Verify your surgeon's skills and expertise.
There is no Consumer Reports equivalent for doctors, and it's infinitely harder to find someone you know and trust who has had the same spine surgery for the same condition as you have. In this blog post, we go into detail about some little-known and highly effective ways to double check your surgeon:
- Realize the second opinion is not always the best opinion.
A common belief is that no one should have spine surgery unless they receive a second opinion from another surgeon. On the surface, this would sound like good old common sense.
However, there is a trap in this line of thinking. Find it in this article: How and When to Get a Second Opinion Before Spine Surgery
Deciding on surgery is a process that you can and should play an active role in. The first steps are to get an accurate diagnosis of the underlying cause of your pain and to thoroughly understand all your treatment options—both surgical and nonsurgical. Reading the articles on this site to help you better understand the potential benefits and risks of your options is a good start.