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Preparing for surgery

9-minute read

Key facts

  • If you’re going to have surgery, it’s good to be prepared.
  • You should find out what your surgery will involve, what you need to do before the surgery and any care you may need when you go home afterwards.
  • Plan how to get to the hospital and how to get home again.

Choosing your surgeon

It can be hard to choose a surgeon. You want to find a person who has all the technical skills you need. You also need to find someone who listens well and can talk to you about any concerns you have.

You could ask your doctor who is the best surgeon to do my operation? And why?

You could ask your surgeon about their experience doing this surgery. If it’s their first time, you should know that. It’s a good idea to ask your surgeon:

  • How many times have you done this operation?
  • What results do you get for your patients?

All surgeons must keep records of all the operations they've performed. They also record whether their patients improve or not. The surgeon should be happy to share this with you.

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Questions to ask before surgery

Do I really need this surgery?

It's a good idea to know exactly how the surgery might help you. For example, if it's surgery on your leg, you could ask your doctor and your surgeon:

  • Will the surgery make my leg have less pain?
  • Will the surgery make walking easier?

Be clear about what the benefits might be. Check how long the benefits should last. Some types of surgery have lifetime benefits. For other types, the benefits might be for a few years or less.

Sometimes the surgery might not work well. Ask what the chances of success are. You could ask your surgeon:

  • Of 100 people who have had this surgery, how many felt a lot better? In what way?

What are the risks of surgery?

All surgery has risks. There are risks from the anaesthetic you will have. General risks of any surgery can be:

  • infection
  • bleeding from your wound

Each type of surgery also has its own risks. You could ask your surgeon:

  • What could go wrong?
  • If you did this operation on 100 people, how many would have something go wrong? And what would it mean to those people?

What happens if I don’t do anything?

Will you get better or worse if you don’t have the surgery?

Are there simpler, safer options?

You may not need surgery. Some health issues get better by themselves. Some can improve with exercise, physiotherapy, dietary changes or medicines. You could ask your doctor and your surgeon:

  • What are the alternatives to surgery?
  • What is likely to happen if I do nothing for the moment?

Choosing to have surgery is a big decision. Remember that the decision is up to you. You may get lots of advice but having surgery is your own choice.

How much will surgery cost?

Surgery and the time it takes you to recover cost money. You could ask your surgeon:

  • How much will I pay for the surgery overall? How much of this is for:
    • the surgeon?
    • the anaesthetist?
    • the hospital?
  • Some surgery is covered by Medicare. If this is the case, how much will Medicare pay? What will my out-of-pocket cost be?
  • What will it cost me in time, effort and stress?
  • How long will I take to recover?
  • How long before I will be able to get back to my normal life?

If you have private health insurance, find out what fees might be covered. Ask your insurer how much of the surgeon’s fees, anaesthetist’s fees and hospital fees will be covered. Some policies may not cover all procedures. You may have some out-of-pocket costs.

What will my recovery be like?

There is a recovery period after all surgery. This can range from a few days to several months. It depends on your age, condition, general health and the type of surgery. It will be important to follow your surgeon’s advice carefully. You could ask your surgeon:

  • How long will it take to fully recover from my surgery?
  • What will my rehabilitation involve?
  • How should I plan for rehabilitation?
  • Can I look after myself at home?

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Getting a second opinion

You can also ask for a second opinion from another surgeon. Simply ask your doctor to refer you to another surgeon.

The days leading up to my surgery

Make sure you know exactly what your operation is for. You should know what the surgery will do for your condition. You should be aware of the risks involved.

Ask your doctor about the anaesthetic — you might not meet the anaesthetist until the day of the operation. You might have a general anaesthetic, a local anaesthetic or light sedation. Be sure you know what your surgeon and anaesthetist plan to do. You should be sure of what you need to do to prepare.

If you take medicines regularly, discuss them with your doctor. It’s important to know whether you should take them as normal.

You may need to stop taking some medicines before surgery. These include anti-inflammatory medicines and blood thinners such as aspirin. Discuss this with your doctor.

Also, tell your doctor about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter and complementary or alternative medicines.

If you have diabetes, you need to develop a good plan with your doctors. This will include knowing what medicines to take and when to eat.

If you smoke, quit if possible. Quitting will help your recovery and reduce your risk of problems with the anaesthetic. Even quitting for a short period is helpful.

If you drink alcohol every day, drink less before surgery. It will help with your healing and your recovery.

The day of my surgery

If you’re having a general anaesthetic, you will need to stop eating and drinking for some hours beforehand. Your doctor will tell you when to stop eating and drinking.

You may get a visit from the anaesthetist before your surgery. You can ask any questions you have. You may have questions about pain relief after the surgery or the effects of the anaesthetic.

You should be able to take most medicines with a sip of water right up until surgery. However, it’s very important to tell your anaesthetist about your medicines. This is particularly important if you are taking antidepressants, blood thinners including aspirin, or medicine for diabetes. You will need special instructions for taking these medicines before surgery.

You should plan how you’re going to get to hospital and get home. It’s best to ask a family member or friend to help you get home. You may also need some help at home afterwards.

After surgery

Ask your doctor how long you’ll be expected to stay in hospital after the operation. Some people need only a few hours before they can go home. Others will be in for a few days or more. A few will be told that they will wake up in an intensive care unit (ICU). It depends on:

  • the type of surgery
  • the type of anaesthetic
  • your health

Pain can be a significant problem after surgery. Don’t be a hero. Tell your doctors and nurses if you have pain.

Some people will need rehabilitation after surgery. This can help you get your strength back or help with the particular problem that the surgery has dealt with. You can have rehabilitation treatment at home or in a rehabilitation unit. Talk to your doctor.

There might be some things you can’t do for a while. This depends on the type of surgery you’ve had. You might:

  • not be allowed to drive
  • find it hard to work
  • find it hard to look after yourself

It’s good to talk these things through with your doctor before the surgery. Then you can plan to solve these problems in advance.

Getting back to normal life can take time. You might be more tired than you expect. Go easy on yourself and accept help that’s offered.

Resources and support

The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA) have a short video (3 minutes) on preparing for your operation.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Last reviewed: January 2023

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