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Preparing for surgery

8-minute read

Whether or not to have surgery is a big decision. No matter how much advice you get, ultimately the decision is yours.

If you’re going to have surgery, it’s good to be prepared. You should find out about what your surgery will involve, your medicines, what you need to do before the surgery, how to get to and from the hospital, and your care when you go home after your surgery.

Choosing your surgeon

It can be difficult to choose a surgeon. You want to find a person who has all the technical skills you need and who also listens well and talks about your concerns.

You could ask your surgeon what experience they have doing this surgery. If it is the first time they have done this surgery, you should know that. It is a good idea to ask your surgeon:

  • How many times have you done this particular operation?
  • What are the results of your surgery?

All surgeons are required to keep records of all the operations they've performed and whether their patients improved or not. They should be happy to share this with you.

You could ask your GP:

  • Who is the best surgeon for me for this particular operation? And why?

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

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 GP and your surgeon:

  • Will the surgery make your leg feel less painful?
  • Will the surgery make walking easier?

Be clear about what the benefits might be. Check how long the benefits should last. For many types of surgery, they should last a lifetime. For other types the benefits might be short-lived. Ask what the chances of success are. You could ask your surgeon:

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

What are the risks of surgery?

All surgery has risks. There are risks that are associated with the anaesthetic you will have. There are also the general risks of any surgery, such as bleeding from the wound, while 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?

Is your condition likely to get better or worse if you don’t have the surgery?

Are there simpler, safer options?

Some conditions get better by themselves. Some conditions improve with alternatives such as exercise, physiotherapy, dietary changes or medicines. You could ask your GP and your surgeon:

  • What are the alternatives to surgery?
  • What might happen if I do nothing?

What are the costs?

Surgery and the time spent recovering from it costs money. You could ask your surgeon:

  • How much will you pay overall — to the surgeon, to the anaesthetist, to the hospital?
  • If your surgery is covered by Medicare, how much will Medicare pay? What will your out-of-pocket cost be?
  • What will it cost you in time, effort and stress?
  • How long will you take to recover?
  • How long before you're able to get back to your normal life?

If you have private health insurance, check how much of the surgeon’s fees, anaesthetist’s fees and hospital fees will be covered. Some policies have restrictions for some procedures and you may have some out-of-pocket costs.

What will recovery be like

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

  • How long will it take to fully recover from surgery?
  • What will the rehabilitation involve?
  • How should I plan for rehabilitation?
  • How should 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 by asking your GP to refer you to another surgeon.

The days leading up to your surgery

Make sure you know exactly what your operation is for, what it is expected to do for you and the risks involved.

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

If you take medicines regularly, discuss them with your doctor. It’s important to know whether or not you should take them as usual or delay them.

Tell your doctor about all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter and complementary or alternative medicines. You may need to stop taking some medicines, such as anti-inflammatory medicines and aspirin, before surgery. Discuss this with your doctor.

If you have diabetes, you need to develop a good plan with your doctors that involves 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 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 before surgery

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

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 if you are taking antidepressants, anticoagulants including aspirin, or medications for diabetes, as you will need special instructions for taking these before surgery.

You should plan how you’re going to get to hospital and get home. It’s best to ask family or a friend to help you get home and to help you 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 while others will be in for a few days or more. A few will be told they’ll wake up after surgery in an intensive care unit. It depends on the type of surgery, the type of anaesthetic, and 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, either to get their strength back or to 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.

Depending on the type of surgery, there might be some things you can’t do for a while. You might not be allowed to drive, you might find it hard to work, you might find it hard to look after yourself. It’s good to talk these things through with your doctor before the surgery so you can plan to solve 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

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Last reviewed: September 2020

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