How to Support Safe Surgery

Even “routine” surgery has risks: trust but verify — ask lots of questions!


Quick tips for when surgery is recommended

Is surgery the only – or best – option?

If surgery is being discussed for your loved one, try to go to all doctor visits with them. Help your loved one create a list of questions and concerns. Take good notes.

    • Ask: “What are some alternatives to surgery?”
    • For every diagnosis that suggests surgery is the treatment, ask “What else could it be? Is there another potential diagnosis?”
    • Urge your loved one to get an independent 2nd opinion — maybe even a 3rd opinion. (Not from the doctor’s friends or co-workers who may hesitate to second-guess a colleague.)
    • Dig for more information on the Internet at reliable sites, sponsored by the government or leading health care associations.
    • Note: Internet information and other research – or advice from friends – does not take the place of seeing doctors!
trust but verify with questions

Even “routine” surgery has risks: trust but verify. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions!

Choosing a Surgeon

Unless it’s an emergency situation, you’re in the driver’s seat more than you know. Surgeons and hospitals have differing levels of expertise and success.

Every patient has the right to “shop around” because every surgery carries risk. Knowing how to minimize risks for best-case results will lend peace of mind that surgery  won’t be “a lemon”.

Urge your loved one to talk to surgeons who have done “thousands” of the planned surgery, not “hundreds.” (May mean traveling to a different city if affordable.)

Shop Around for the Best Surgeon

Some people shop around more carefully for a new car than they do for a surgeon!

Scheduling the Surgery

  • If surgery is not an emergency, urge your loved one to schedule it on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday (safest days for surgeries).
  • If possible, avoid July, August, and major holiday weeks when senior hospital staff have earned time off.
  • Schedule surgery for when the surgeon will be working and available to your loved one for several days afterward. (It’s OK to ask, “Planning a vacation?”)
  • If the surgeon works at different hospitals, help your loved one find out which one has the best record for infection. (
Some days are better than others for surgery.

It matters what month and day you choose for surgery.

Questions to Ask Prior to Surgery

  • Download our surgery checklists and take them to doctor visits. Go over them together. (If the surgeon objects to these safety checklists, consider finding another surgeon!)
  • Urge your loved one to talk to the surgeon about a screening MRSA test — a quick swab inside the nose. It’s a helpful test so the hospital will know to take some special steps if your loved one carries this germ.
  • Ask the surgeon to explain risks for surgery if your loved one smokes or drinks heavily. (Maybe ask for advice for stopping or cutting back, too?)
  • Ask for the doctor’s advice about diet and exercise to prep for surgery.

Download and refer often to our checklists to keep you on track.

Questions to ask when surgery is recommended

Find the Right Doctor for You

  • What is the name of the surgery? (Medical name and “regular” or common name)
  • How many of these surgeries have you personally done? Don’t settle for any fewer than “hundreds”, but ideally, “thousands.”
  • What are alternatives to surgery? What are some other choices?
    • What are the benefits and risks to all possible choices?
    • What are the chances for success for each choice? (What do you consider “success”?)
      Be sure to share what you consider success, taking into account your lifestyle, personal goals, and anything else that would affect your long-term physical well-being and peace of mind.
    • What are the chances for risk, complications or poor results for each choice? What are the realistic risks vs. rewards?
  • Who would actually perform my operation?
    • Who would assist? How many surgeries of this type have they performed?
    • Would student/s/residents be present? What would student/resident do in my surgery?
  • Do you use a surgical checklist in the operating room?
  • What is your infection rate for this kind of surgery?
    • Do you recommend showering and or shampooing with Hibiclens (similar) prior to surgery? If so, for how long? If not, why not?
    • Do you prescribe a prophylactic antibiotic prior to surgery? If not taken in advance of admission, would I get at admission or just prior to surgery?
    • Will I get a pre-op MRSA test? (If “No”: will you order?)
  • Do you lead a “time out” for everyone on the surgery team to introduce themselves?
  • Will you provide me with all Informed Consent papers so I can study them and make sure everything we’ve discussed is covered?
    • Append your notes and agreements with your doctor to your Informed Consent.

Know What to Expect

  • Who can help me figure out what everything will cost?
    • What are my options if I can’t afford any or all parts of treatment?
    • Available resources?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • What kind of anesthesia will be used?
    • Are there other kinds of anesthesia to consider?
    • If so, what are the positives and negatives of each type?
  • How much pain can I expect?
    • When will I have it?
    • What will you use to help control my pain?
    • Any alternatives pain management resources to consider? (I.e. other meds, biofeedback)
    • Will pain management be self-administered via IV that I control — or by prescription and given by nurses?
    • Do I have a choice? (Note: studies show that, when patients self manage, they take lower doses of pain meds than are typically prescribed.)
  • How long will I be in recovery?
    • How will I be monitored after the surgery? For how long?
    • May I have a family member sit with me in the recovery area?
    • Will I get supplemental oxygen after surgery? Why? Why not?  What is the standard of care?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
    • What are the signs of recovery?
    • How will we know when I’m ready to go home?
    • May I have a family member stay with me 24/7?
    • What are sleeping provisions for my family member who stays with me?
  • Where will I go after leaving the hospital? Home? Rehab? Assisted Living? Other?
  • What care will I need after leaving the hospital?
    • Medications?
    • Therapies? (I.e. Physical therapy, Occupational therapy)
    • Wound care?
    • Daily living support?
    • In-home nursing care?
    • Other:____________________________________________________________
  • Will I need to make any changes to my…
    • Diet? What can I eat? What should I not eat?  Why? For how long?
    • Lifestyle? Changes to plan for/accommodate? Why? For how long?
    • Living arrangements? Changes to plan for/accommodate? Why? For how long?
  • What are potential post-op complications? (Red flag if infection is not mentioned. It’s always a potential complication.)
    • What are the signs of trouble?
      • For trouble signs, what should I do? Who to call? (Get phone numbers, pagers for primary contact and back-ups.)
      • What are signs for immediate help – when would we call 911?
    • What are the signs of success – the positive guideposts to healing?
  • When will I see you for post-op appointment? Can we schedule that as soon as surgery is scheduled? How often will we meet after this?
  • Do you have an Emmi video of the procedure you’re recommending so I can learn more?

Schedule Surgery at the Best Hospital at the Best Time

  • What hospital/s do you use for your surgeries? How are they rated for safety and quality?
  • Could we schedule surgery for mid-week?
  • Will you be available afterward for a few days to check in on me, or are you planning time off? Avoid Fridays, Mondays and holiday/vacation times. Choose dates when surgeon will be available afterward. Mid-week is optimal.

    How to help your loved one prepare for surgery

    A lot of care goes into getting ready for surgery, an anxious time for most patients. From tests, to showering properly, to gathering medications, you can help support these safe steps to a safe surgery.

    • Read the surgeon’s pre-surgery instructions. Help make sure your loved one follows these instructions “to a T!”
    • For 2 to 3 days before surgery, remind your loved one to shower with antibacterial shampoo and body soap, with a final shower just before going to the hospital. (Chlorhexidine soap is effective and available at most drugstores.)
    • If your loved one is having surgery on a “twin organ” (like kidneys or lungs), or on an arm or leg, help avoid confusion over which side requires surgery. Put a large piece of masking tape over the side that should NOT be cut. Write a big, bold “NO!” on this tape for the side that should not be touched by the surgeon.
    • Keep your loved one warm. In cold weather, warm up the car first. Make sure hair is dry. No matter what the season, bring an extra sweater or other soft, warm clothing; hospitals have some very chilly areas.
    • Fill out a medication record with your loved one. Bring it to the hospital with all of your loved one’s current medications.

    Prepare to stay with your loved one 24/7 while hospitalized.

    It’s okay to ask for help—organize “shifts” with other family members and friends.

    Put a large piece of masking tape over the side that should NOT be cut. Write a big, bold “NO!” on this tape for the side that should not be touched by the surgeon.

    What to Do at the Hospital the Day of Surgery

    Details to confirm:

    • Your loved one’s name
    • Procedure
    • Location of procedure (ask for it to be marked)
    • Current medications
    • Allergies
    • Last time your loved one had anything to eat or drink
    • Any other information the surgeon feels is important
    • How long the surgery will take
    • When you can expect updates during the surgery

    Confirm the surgical team will:

    Take a “Time Out” or “Huddle” just before the surgery to confirm correct patient procedure and …

    • Review your loved one’s medications, allergies and any other special conditions
    • Introduce team members to each other
    • Use a surgical checklist
    • Ask that nurse clip (not shave) hair that may need to be removed
    • Give an antibiotic on time (Who is responsible? What time?)
    • Keep your loved one warm
    • Provide additional oxygen


    Every conversation with the medical team is important. Know the questions and topics to cover to make the most of their time and expertise.


    Ask to stay with your loved one in the recovery room so that you can watch for signs of distress, including:

    • Chills, shivering
    • Confusion
    • Extreme pain, moaning
    • Headache
    • Nausea, vomiting
    • Any signs of distress
    • Shortness of breath
    • Rapid breathing

    How to help your loved one recover

    During the Hospital Stay

    Because nurses typically care for up to 8 patients at a time in their units, it’s important for you to pitch in to help make sure your loved one doesn’t suffer any of the common complications that often add extra days to hospital stays. Our Hospital Stay Checklists make it easy to know what to look for, what to do, and what to ask.

    Click here to navigate to our Hospital Stay Checklists.

    After Leaving the Hospital

    About 20% of patients end up back in the hospital within a month.[7] No one is 100% when they leave the hospital so create a good plan for care at home to prevent a hospital round trip!

    Whether your loved one is recovering at home or in a nursing home/assisted care facility, they will need to be monitored closely, especially if new medications have been prescribed.

    How to plan for discharge and recovery to help prevent a hospital round trip! 

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    Sharing is Caring ❤

    Share these tips with your family and friends.