How to Find the Right Surgeon: Advice For Boomers
The two most common types of surgery for Boomers are joint replacements for osteoarthritis of the knee or hip, and cosmetic surgery. How do you go about finding the top surgeon in these fields?
Finding a surgeon that you can trust to do a great job is important and often difficult. Asking family and friends is the way most people search, but it is not always the best way. Different people want different types of care and just because your neighbor had a great experience with her surgeon doesn't mean that surgeon is right for you. Ask around, of course, but do other research as well.
And before you start looking, make sure you have realistic expectations. A joint replacement is not going to ensure that you can run the next marathon. Playing golf or tennis doubles a couple of times a week is a more realistic goal. And as for cosmetic surgery, remember, plastic surgeons are surgeons, not magicians. Decision Aids are available for knee osteoarthritis and hip osteoarthritis. These are great programs developed by The Informed Medical Decisions Foundation to help patients evaluate themselves and make the best decision for their individual situation.
If you are considering a joint replacement, you can get a feel for what you are getting into by reading articles such as OrthoInfo's Total Joint Replacement, a good piece put together by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
If you know anyone who is a surgeon, ask him to ask colleagues about a surgeon specialized in the area you are interested in. If you know a medical student, administrator, nurse or other healthcare professional, get his advice also. Most doctors can find out who the top people are in a specific field if they ask around.
If you live near a large hospital, check out their specialty departments. And if you live near a large city, check out the hospitals there also. But do not make geographic proximity to you the only priority. You may have to travel to get the care you need.
Be organized and diligent. Choosing the right surgeon may take some time, but it is an important decision. Make a list of names of surgeons that you think may be right for you. If you are having trouble finding any names at all, start by going to a site such as Healthgrades which lists doctors and includes their hospital affiliations, years in practice, insurance accepted and office locations. You can also find a photo of the doctor, his age and where he went to medical school. Angie’s List (angieslist.com) has started consumer ratings of A to F for doctors; and Consumers’ Checkbook (checkbook.org) provides detailed consumer ratings of physicians in seven metropolitan areas but these two sites require payment. WebMD also has lists of doctors but they offer no additional information. And you can find doctors on ZocDoc and even book appointments, but information may be spotty in some areas as although they do cover more than 1700 cities and more than 40% of the US population, ZocDoc is not quite nationwide yet. ZocDoc does list the insurance carriers that the doctors accept so you can check to see if your carrier is on the list.
At a minimum, any surgeon should be licensed (you can confirm that on sites such as docboard) and certified in the specialty area you are interested in (you can confirm that on sites such as certificationmatters). Healthgrades also has an option to check for board certification and an option to screen for 'no sanction or malpractice'.
Some surgeons have a private practice while others are affiliated with teaching hospitals or private clinics. In either case, there should be a website you can visit to get a feel for the provider and perhaps the individual physician. Some websites have videos of doctors actually "talking" to you which is useful; you can observe body language and speech and presentation style if that is important to you. And it goes without saying that you should google all doctors on your list to see what their digital footprint is. You can check and see if they are invited to lecture and if they have published any clinical studies. Any information you can obtain is helpful, but do not make a decision based on only one variable.
If you are looking for a joint replacement surgeon, another variable is the prosthesis itself. Each joint replacement surgeon usually has one or several "favorite" prostheses that he uses. If you want to venture into the type of prosthesis used, be aware that there are many prostheses available (at all different prices) and the information is pretty technical. The surgeon may have a business "relationship" with the prosthesis manufacturer, meaning that he speaks out for the prosthesis at trade shows or conducts clinical studies on its use. This is common and is not [IMHO] necessarily negative. By all means, ask the surgeon about the prosthesis used, why he uses it, what the cost is, and why he believes it would be the one to use in your situation.
When you have narrowed the field down, you should interview at least 2 surgeons. Get an appointment and go in for a consultation. Have a list of questions with you. Observe everything: office area, receptionist, efficiency, wait times, length of time spent with the surgeon and general feel of the experience.
- What was the surgeon's general assesment of your situation?
- What type of treatment did he suggest?
- How did he describe the surgery?
- How did he describe the rehab/convalescence period?
- What did he think of other alternatives?
- How much did he say the procedure would cost?
- What did he say about longterm prognosis?
Choosing a surgeon is usually not a quick nor easy process. It is an important decision and time should be spent on its undertaking. Do your homework and plan your strategy. I have tried to help here in some minor ways. Know that ultimately, you are the one who has to feel comfortable with your choice. So listen to everyone and research everything that you can, but make your own decision.
Joan Justice is Executive Director at thePatient Empowerment Network, a global non-for-profit organization dedicated to fortifying the health care consumer with the knowledge and tools to feel more confident playing a central role in decisions that affect their health. Joan has a background in nursing and domestic and international healthcare marketing. Previously, she was the manager of ...