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Ask Dr. Wills: What Questions Should I Ask My Spine Surgeon?

Spine treatment options can be complex. Summit Orthopedics spine surgeon Dr. Nick Wills discusses the questions to ask when you are evaluating your treatment options.

When you are evaluating spine treatments, knowing the right questions to ask is half the battle. “You have to know the questions—and you have to know how to evaluate the answers you get,” says Summit spine surgeon Dr. Nick Wills. He shares the questions he would ask, and explains why they are important.

Question 1: Are there conservative as well as surgical treatments for your condition?

“Some practices are surgically based and don’t offer nonoperative resources that might be useful,” explains Dr. Wills. “At Summit, we have the nonoperative physicians and physical therapists to offer conservative treatments. Often, therapy, injections, and other conservative treatments can resolve a patient’s condition so that surgery isn’t necessary. If a practice doesn’t have those resources, it’s less likely that you’ll be guided to nonsurgical options. At Summit, we have many different tools at our disposal to try to get people better. We don’t have to jump to surgery.”

Question 2: Does your practice have its own physical therapists, or do they refer you for therapy?

“At Summit, we employ our own physical therapists, and they work closely with our surgeons to monitor rehabilitation progress,” explains Dr. Wills. “Other practices may send patients to third-party physical therapy—they have less control over therapist qualifications, less communication about recovery, and they won’t be able to monitor patient rehabilitation as closely.”

Question 3: If you are considering surgery, how is the surgery going to be handled?

“I always want to know who is going to actually perform the surgery,” says Dr. Wills. “In some practices, the surgeon supervises, but the actual surgery is performed by a resident or fellow with far less experience. At Summit, when I do your spine surgery, you are getting me. I’m not down the hall in my office, waiting for a resident to expose the spine. It’s my surgery and I do it. This is important because a surgeon will have many more years of experience than a resident or a fellow. Personally, I’m not satisfied with the notion that my surgeon handles only ‘the important parts of the case.’ My question is: ‘Tell me what part of the case isn’t important. What part isn’t valuable for me?’ I feel that the moment a patient goes into the operating room, everything is important: the positioning, the anesthesia, the prepping, the draping, localizing the incision, doing the incision, dissecting down to the spot, and doing the surgery. There’s no part of it that’s not important. I want to make sure that everything is done properly. And who closes the incision? A PA or an intern? My PA has probably closed thousands of spine wounds, and he is excellent. An intern may just be learning to sew.”

Choosing wisely

“Everyone wants an excellent surgeon, and skill affects outcomes,” Dr. Wills acknowledges. “But there are other factors that influence the surgical experience, and they are the true differentiators in the quality of the patient experience. Surgery is intimidating, and when people are in pain, they want to feel as though someone cares. Wouldn’t you want that? I know I would. At Summit, we do everything we can to have protocols and procedures in place to reduce surgical risks and increase our patients’ safety and comfort.”

Summit Orthopedics offers comprehensive spine expertise

Our back specialists diagnose spine problems and design custom treatment plans built on a conservative, nonsurgical approach. Most patients find relief through treatments including guided injections, specialized physical therapy, biofeedback, exercise, activity modification, and medication. When conservative care does not relieve symptoms, our highly skilled surgeons offer proven, evidence-based surgical options. Together with you, we will determine the right course of action.

Start your journey to a healthy spine. Find your spine expert, request an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a spine consultation.

Summit has convenient locations across the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serving Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We have state-of-the-art centers for comprehensive orthopedic care in Eagan, MNPlymouth, MN, Vadnais Heights, MN, and Woodbury, MN, as well as additional community clinics throughout the metro and southern Minnesota.

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