Know Your Surgeon – Before Surgery

“Just get your surgery done”

When the DOCC project began to evolve in 1999 it was my feeling that if there was a structural problem that it just needed to be dealt with surgically and then we could move ahead with the rest of the protocols. My reasoning was that you could not concentrate enough while in pain to internalize the process. After all you can’t rehab an infected tooth. I was wrong on several counts.

Maybe not

In spite of my advice to proceed with surgery some patients, even with significant pain from a distinct identifiable problem, wanted to wait and try the non-operative structured care first. Many would return for what I thought would be the visit to make a final surgical decision and their pain would be minimal or gone. We never did the operation. The idea that calming the nervous system could diminish pain arising from a structural problem was a major shift in my thinking.

More predictable outcomes

It then became clear the patients who actively engaged in learning about pain and using the tools of the DOCC project had much less pain post op, ambulated more quickly, and predictably would have a better outcome. This year our team agreed that we would only perform surgery on a patient who was willing to calm down his or her nervous system for at least six weeks before elective surgery. Some patients simply did not want to have any part of taking charge of their own care and went elsewhere. The patients who committed to themselves predictably did very well.


I first met Ron about four months ago. He was in his late 50’s and just plain angry. At the first mention of doing some reading about pain he exploded. He was not going to have anything to do with it. I hung in there and explained that he was certainly welcome to have someone else perform the two-level laminectomy and one-level fusion in his lower back. But it would not be me. I was certain he would not be returning.

Home in two days

He did return and over the next three months he underwent a remarkable transformation with much less LBP and improvement in his mood. As his leg pain persisted he underwent the surgery – and went home on the second post-op day almost pain free. He is muscular and the surgery was about 4 hours. The normal time in the hospital is four or five days.

“I got to know you”

I was talking to him at his discharge and reminiscing about the first couple of times I had met him. I said, “I think that your engagement in structured care concepts was really helpful and I am impressed at your enthusiasm at embracing them.” He agreed that it was the correct choice to wait. Suddenly he stopped the conversation, looked at me and said, “I got to know you.”

The production of medicine

There is a lot of pressure to “be productive” in medicine. There are endless conversations about how to maximize the surgical yield of the clinic. Often surgeons require updated scans to be done before they will evaluate the patient. If there is a problem that is amenable to surgery then the decision to proceed is frequently made on the first visit.

Do we know each other?

With few exceptions I will no longer make a surgical decision on the initial visit. Why? It is critical to know the context in which the decision is being made. What kind of stress are you under? Is your pain severe enough to undergo any procedure? Do you really know the risks? We don’t even know each other and we are about to become partners in a risky venture.

Impact of stress

Some of the insights that have surfaced on the second or third visit are:

  • “My son just died two months ago in a car accident.”
  • “My husband retired and we are driving each other crazy.”
  • “I lost my daughter to breast cancer last week.”
  • “I have a drinking problem.”
  • “I lost my job”

These severe stressors impact both the perception of pain and also the decision-making process.  Do you feel comfortable discussing these details with a doctor you have just met? It is a bad idea to make major decisions when your life has been impacted to this degree.

Don’t make your decision about surgery on the first visit

Knowing my patients allows me to teach them strategies that enable them to both decrease pain and cope with stress. Spine surgery is a significant stress. I also enjoy my day in clinic.

Do not make a major decision about surgery on your first visit. Would you buy a house or used car without an inspection? Why would you allow someone you have heard “has a great reputation” to decide your fate in under an hour? That includes me. The risks of spine surgery are too high and the potential downside can be catastrophic.

Know your surgeon – before surgery. More importantly, make sure he or she knows you.

Video: “Get it Right the First Time”

Are You Kidding Me?