4 Steps to a Successful Surgery

If you or a loved one is scheduled for surgery now or in the near future, you’re probably wondering what to expect. Educating yourself as much as you can in advance can help you be prepared for the emotional, physical, and financial aspects, says Frederick L. Greene, MD, FACS, Clinical Professor of Surgery at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Greene, who also hosts The Recovery Room, an NPR patient education show sponsored by the American College of Surgeons (ACS), says that taking the time to anticipate their needs gives patients the chance to come up with strategies to manage any issues they may face during the process.

Here are some ways to get ready for the experience:

1. Prepare Yourself Emotionally

  • Make sure you have confidence in your surgeon’s expertise. To do this, ask about his or her experience in the field: "When patients learn they need surgery, one of the most prudent questions to ask [your doctor] is, 'Have you performed this surgery before?'" says Charles S. Theofilos, MD, a neurosurgeon and founder of The Spine Center in Palm Beach County, Florida.
  • Have someone accompany you during the procedure. "Many people have outpatient surgery, and need to have someone who can be contacted easily if there are any decisions that need to be made during the procedure," Greene says. This person will also need to drive you home afterward.
  • Plan for help for when you get home. For instance, if you have young children, you’ll probably need a family member or friend to help with child care, as well as lifting, cooking, and driving as you recover.
  • Consider your follow-up care. You’ll need to know if you should plan to be on bed rest for a while, and if you will need frequent blood tests and checkups afterward.

2. Prepare Yourself Physically

  • Research your anesthesia (a medicine that helps control pain during surgery) options. This allows you to ask questions as well as talk about your preferences and concerns when you meet with your surgeon or the anesthesiologist prior to the procedure. The type of surgery and the state of your health will both factor into the decision as to what type of anesthesia will be used. Some forms of anesthesia will put you to sleep, while others may just make you feel sleepy or block feeling during the procedure. And be sure to ask your doctor about what to expect as the effects wear off, Greene advises.
  • Make a list of medicines you regularly take, and share these with your surgeon. For instance, if you’re on a blood thinner, it usually needs to be stopped or transitioned to something else before your surgery. "The patient should talk to the surgeon and anesthesiologist about this," Greene says.
  • Stop smoking. If you smoke, one of the best—and most important—things you can do is to quit at least four to six weeks before your surgery date. It’s not just that "Smoking is a detriment to health," as Greene says; smoking can also put you at risk if you need general anesthesia, and it can interfere with healing after surgery.
  • Strengthen your core. This involves exercises to strengthen the abdominal, back, and pelvic muscles. "Core strengthening is recommended not only for surgery patients but also all other patients," Theofilo says. "Strengthening your core takes any undue pressure off of the spine, helps with better posture, and alleviates lower back pain as well as providing support post-operatively." If you're overweight, exercise may also help you lose weight prior to surgery.

3. Prepare Yourself Financially

  • Talk to your doctor. If you’ll be undergoing surgery for a condition that isn’t urgent or life threatening, talk to your doctor about the financial aspects of the procedure before you actually schedule the date. For instance, you’ll need to find out if the procedure is covered by insurance, whether you need pre-authorization, and if you have a co-pay or deductible. Luckily, "Most surgeons’ offices have someone who can sit down with the patient and go over all of these details," Greene says.
  • Think about other surgery-related costs. If you’ll be taking a medical leave without pay, you may need to save up for a few months first so you’ll be able to cover your expenses. Or if you need to hire someone to help you around the house for a while, you’ll want to budget for this.
  • Get your paperwork in order. Make sure your finances and paperwork are all in order before surgery. While no one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, “Everyone should also have a living will prior to surgery,” Theofilos says, adding that a living will is a legal document that sets out your preferences regarding medical treatment in the event that you are unable to express them yourself.

4. Learn More

  • Educate yourself. "The more the patient knows about the procedure being done and the outcomes," the better prepared he will be for what lies ahead, Greene says. He adds that people can visit the American College of Surgeons’ website at facs.org/education/patient-education for more information, as well as for patient education brochures and access to other valuable resources.

Frederick L. Greene, MD, FACS, and Charles S. Theofilos, MD, reviewed this article.


Greene, Frederick L., MD, FACS. The Recovery Room. Phone interview, July 12, 2015.

Theofilos, Charles S., MD. Email interview, July 12, 2015.

"Surgical Patient Education for a Better Recovery.”" American College of Surgeons. Accessed July 18, 2015.

"Slide Show: Exercises to Improve your Core Strength." Mayo Clinic. Page accessed July 24, 2015.