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How to Choose the Right Spine Surgeon

Doctor showing a patient a spine model

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders records that almost 80% of Americans will experience back pain that needs treatment.

If you’re reading this article chances are that you or a loved are one of that 80%. You may need surgery, and you need a spine surgeon.

But how are you supposed to choose a surgeon?

Read on for our fail-safe tips when choosing the right spine surgeon for you!

1. Do Some Research Beforehand

Most patients begin the search for a spinal surgeon because their primary care physicians can’t treat their back pain. Your PCP might provide you with a referral.

But we still recommend researching other potential candidates. Here are a few basic qualifications that the surgeon should meet.

Are They Board Certified?

A board-certified surgeon is a doctor who completed additional training through the American Board of Medical Specialties. The ABMS establishes standards of excellence in education and practice to improve a patient’s quality of care.

The American Board of Medical Specialties website has an online certification tool you can use to verify that your physician is board certified.

And most spine surgeons will also have their ABMS certificate on display in their office.

What Are the Details of the Surgeon’s Training?

After medical school, all surgeons undergo three additional training phases.

  1. Internship (usually one year)
  2. Residency (between 4-6 years)
  3. Fellowship (usually one year)

There are two different categories under the umbrella of spinal surgery. Identify whether your procedure is considered orthopedic (bone related) or neuro (nerve related).

You can verify that your potential surgeon specialized in the one relevant to your needs and condition. Most doctors list their specialties and fellowship on their clinic or hospital website.

Read Some Reviews

Websites like HealthGrades give past patients an opportunity to rate their physicians on a scale of 1-5 stars.

While these reviews are honest, it is wise to take them with a grain of salt. Patients who have had negative experiences are more likely to leave a review than patients with good ones. So review websites are often more representative of the bad outcomes.

You should let these reviews factor in part of your decision, but never most of it.

2. Have a Consultation With Your Potential Spine Surgeon

An easy way to filter through spine surgeon candidates is to call their offices and ask for a consultation. Most of them will encourage and allow you to meet with the surgeon beforehand, but some of them won’t.

If a doctor isn’t willing to provide you an opportunity to meet them prior to a procedure you should immediately cross them off your list.

Talk to Nurses and Staff

You can learn a lot about a doctor based off of what their associates say about them. You’ll have an opportunity to interact with staff and nurses both on the phone and in person during the consultation process.

Nurses especially have a clear perspective on the quality of care and outcomes because they are present before, during, and after every surgery. They see the whole process and can provide invaluable input.

Ask things like:

  • If your parent/child needed surgery would you bring them here?
  • If you needed surgery, is this the surgeon you would choose?
  • Can you share a recent successful outcome?

A nurse can give no higher praise than “this is the surgeon I sent my mom to.” But if all they can say is “this surgeon is a really wonderful person” that might be a red flag.

Come Prepared With Lots of Questions

You should do some research before your consultation on what your condition or recommended procedure involves. For those of us that didn’t attend medical school, that kind of research will bring up many questions.

Make a list and take it with you to your consultation. A good spine surgeon will listen to your questions, validate your concerns, and answer them.

If the doctor makes you feel silly or uncomfortable for asking questions you can and should cross them off your list of candidates. Your consultation is only the first of many interactions you’ll have with the surgeon who performs your procedure, and if you feel like you can’t ask them questions you’ll end up going through the process blind.

Ask If Surgery is Absolutely Necessary

Consultations with a specialist often reveal that less invasive techniques could resolve a condition or help treat pain. If it’s possible, you should explore any potential non-surgical treatment options before committing to surgery.

A good physician understands that surgery is painful and always involves recovery and will help you understand any other options prior to scheduling a surgery.

3. Do Some More Research After Your Consultation

Once you’ve met with a potential surgeon there is some necessary research that remains before you make a final decision.

Ask For Patient References

Before you leave your consultation you should ask your physician if they can provide you with any patient references.

Keep in mind that HIPAA laws prevent them from sharing any type of patient information without that patient’s consent.

So while they might not have a list available immediately for you, they might offer to send you one once they’ve had an opportunity to seek the permission of their previous patients.

If they are able to provide you with a list, use it! A few good questions to ask previous patients include:

  • How was your overall experience with ‘Dr. ___’?
  • How could ‘Dr. ___’ have provided you with better care?
  • If your spouse/parent/child needed a spine surgeon would you send them to ‘Dr. ___’?

Seek a Second Opinion

It is very common to ask a doctor for a second opinion. Don’t feel shy about asking who they would recommend that you visit next.

Repeat these steps with each potential spine surgeon on your list of candidates.

4. Trust Your Instincts!

Once you’ve researched, met with, and considered all your options it’s time to make a decision.

While they’re not quantifiable, your instincts should be a factor in your decision.

And contact us to meet with a team of trained professionals and spine surgeons to help treat your condition today!

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