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Consumer Reports Insights: What to ask your doctor before having surgery, taking a test or using a drug

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Monday, September 27, 2010; 6:41 PM

To reduce your risk of having a bad experience, here are five questions you should ask when your doctor recommends an operation, test or drug.

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l What's your track record with this type of surgery, and do I have other options? Ask whether there is more than one surgical approach, and if they have different benefits and risks. Also find out how many of the operations the doctor has performed and what her success rate is. If she's not going to do the operation herself, find out who will. (In teaching hospitals, residents tend to do most of the surgery, although an attending physician is prepared to help oversee the procedure.) Your surgeon might not offer this information unless you ask.

l How does your hospital compare with others? If the operation you're considering involves an overnight stay in the hospital, you should find out as much as you can about the facility. You also might have a choice of where to go, because many surgeons have staff privileges at more than one hospital. Wherever you go, ask your surgeon how satisfied patients have been with their stay, and what the infection rates are. For information on how hospitals fared on some of these issues, go to www.consumerreportshealth.org and click on "Doctors & Hospitals."

l Can I get these tests somewhere else? Is there a compelling reason for you to go to the facility named on the prescription? Many multi-specialty groups provide financial incentives for doctors to refer their patients internally for laboratory, radiology and specialty testing. In some cases, the quality of the equipment or the expertise of the physicians interpreting the test results is crucial, while with others, such as routine blood testing, it may not be as important.

l Do you take my insurance? To prevent expensive surprises, make sure all the doctors involved in your care are in your insurer's provider network. Just because your hospital and surgeon are in-network doesn't automatically mean that the anesthesiologists, pathologists and radiologists are. Check with both the hospital and your insurance company.

l Is there a generic drug for my condition? Your doctor may have chosen your new prescription because a pharmaceutical representative dropped off some free samples at the office. But only expensive (and often quite new) brand-name drugs are provided as samples, and when it's time to continue the prescription, their extra cost far exceeds what you would have paid to get a generic version in the first place. So always ask if there's a generic medication you can start with. Also be sure to find out what the most common side effects are, and whether there may be interactions with your other medications or any dietary supplements you may be taking.

(c) Copyright 2010. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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