What to consider when choosing a pediatric surgeon

Parent and child consulting with surgeon in office
PHOTO: ADOBE STOCK

As a parent or caregiver, it’s only natural for you to want the best for your child. But when you receive a diagnosis that requires surgery as part of treatment, how do you know what the “best” is? 

Here are five things to consider when you’re selecting a pediatric surgeon.

Expertise

Pediatric surgeons all have their own specialties; there aren’t any surgeons who are experts across the board. It’s important to find someone who has experience with your child’s specific condition and is up to date on the latest research and procedures. Remember, the best cardiothoracic surgeon may not be the best neurosurgeon. Additionally, make sure your surgeon has experience operating on children. Children aren’t just “little adults” — pediatric procedures often require a unique skill set, and even different equipment.

To start, find out if your potential surgeon is board certified. Board certification is a voluntary process that goes above state licensing and is designed to show a surgeon’s commitment to lifelong learning and quality patient care. Once they are certified, surgeons must participate in educational programs to maintain their certification. Keep in mind that there is a difference between being board certified and being pediatric board certified.

You can check to see if your pediatric surgeon is board certified by visiting the American Board of Surgery. You can also look online to see whether the surgeon has published research in your area of interest, which could be another indication of their expertise. Online, you can also see any national organizations they are associated with, such as the American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA) or the Children’s Oncology Group (COG).

However, it’s important to remember these are only guidelines, and none of the above guarantees the surgeon will be an expert in your child’s particular case.

A team approach

When you look for a pediatric surgeon, it’s important to find someone who collaborates with their team to deliver the least invasive and best course of treatment, regardless of what that may be.

In addition to researching your pediatric surgeon, try to learn more about the hospital where the procedure will take place. Do they have a pediatric anesthesiologist on staff, or access to the latest equipment and technology? A surgeon needs to work closely with the entire care team in order to do things appropriately, as well as in the right order. The qualifications of this entire team should be part of the assessment process before a final decision is made.

“No one person can make a complicated situation perfect,” says Brent Weil, MD, a pediatric surgeon at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. “We are a village and we rely on the expertise of multiple people.”

You should also take into consideration what resources and services the hospital offers for its pediatric patients. Do they have child life specialists on staff? Are there playrooms available? Does the hospital participate in pet therapy, or are there ways for your child to interact with other children? While these services are not necessary for all patients, you should explore the hospital’s environment before making a decision. 

Open communication

There is an added emphasis on open and honest communication when dealing with a pediatric surgery. A pediatric surgeon needs to be able to engage a room full of people who potentially all have their own questions, concerns, or points of view. A good surgeon will make time for everyone’s thoughts, acknowledge all concerns, and explain the reasoning behind the procedure.

While much of the time will be spent speaking with a parent or guardian, it’s also important for the surgeon to make a connection with the patient.

Your team’s referrals

Most pediatric surgeons receive new patients through referrals, and one of the best ways to start your search is by consulting with your current care team. Your child’s specialists or primary care doctor should be able to recommend someone. You can always ask their opinion on a name as well.

Using the internet to learn more about a surgeon’s background can be beneficial, but the best information often comes from your current care team.

Hospital rankings

Care of complex medical problems often requires a team of experts across many disciplines. When you’re looking for a pediatric surgeon, searching for a list of the top children’s hospitals will likely provide a good starting point. While it shouldn’t be the only factor in making a decision, a trustworthy ranking site, such as U.S. News and World Report, can help build a foundation.

If you’re unsure about anything you are hearing from a surgeon or another provider, don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion. Second opinions can bring peace of mind, and surgeons should welcome it. Don’t forget: You can always receive surgery at one location, and then complete the rest of your care at another.

Learn more about the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.