How to find the best ankle surgeon

Are you looking for a surgeon finder? When it comes to selecting a surgeon, its important not to be bowled over by charisma and to ensure your surgeon has the correct skill to perform your operation. Whilst this article is about finding a surgeon to perform an ankle replacement in England, it’s content can be used for any surgeon for any condition.

Several of the largest health insurer’s such as BUPA and AXA PPP often restrict many of the highest skilled surgeons from your policy, but when it comes to undergoing surgery that’s going to last your lifetime, its important to make sure you select your surgeon based on their ability to do the best job for you. We recommend that rather than just following any insurers recommendation, that you do your own homework in finding the most appropriate surgeon for you.

Now of course, personal recommendation by a friend or family member is a much better way for you to find the best surgeon, but as you will see from this article, should only form part of your search.

Speak to your GP

In the UK, general practitioners or GP’s are the first port of call for any medical problem. In many cases your GP will have looked after you or your family for a long time and they know you well.

All patients that have seen a specialist come back to the GP eventually and so the GP tends to form their own mini TripAdvisor for health and are an excellent place to start.

If you are being referred on the NHS, you may have less choice as to whom you can see, largely because primary care Trusts now have contracts with certain hospital providers, and so you are likely to be referred within contract to your local hospital. There is however the NHS e-Referral Service, which replaced Choose and Book in June 2015 and gives you some choice as to whom you can see.

In many cases, you will routinely be referred to a local musculoskeletal triage service, which is a form of filter to reduce the number of referrals to specialists. This can be useful if you have a common minor ailment such as low back pain, but can delay referral when conditions are serious or more complex such as ankle arthritis.

Even if your GP doesn’t know a specific specialist for your problem, they are good sounding boards for your research.

If you are seeking a private appointment you are likely to also need a GP referral in order to obtain an appointment with a specialist. Some insurers have introduced a system known as Open referral where by a GP cannot recommend any specialist and it has to be a “Dear Doctor” letter. In certain circumstances this can be very dangerous, as health insurers who have introduced this policy rarely have the necessary quality metrics to know who is the most appropriate specialist for you to see

Search the Internet

Internet sites can help you find surgeons, but often the surgeon who is the best marketeer comes up at the top of the search. Beware surgeons who have their own website, especially when the URL is the surgeons own name. These surgeons might have too much time on their hands to spend developing promotional websites and you would probably rather a surgeon who better spent their time on patient care and developing their operating skills. A better solution might be chat rooms, where patients make personal recommendations based on their own outcome and if there are several recommendations rather than just one, that is likely to be a more reliable source.

Check the surgeon’s credentials

Read the surgeon’s biography. Have they obtained all the appropriate qualifications? In orthopaedic surgery, surgeons should have a basic medical qualification such as MBBS, then an orthopaedic Board certification which is known as FRCS(Orth) or FRCS (Tr&Orth). Other surgeons may have an MD, which in the UK is a higher research degree as is a PhD.

Be cautious of practitioners who claim they are surgeons but are not medically qualified, such as podiatric surgeons. Some podiatric surgeons work as part of an established orthopaedic network and in this guise are suitable to perform forefoot surgery up to the midfoot but should not be performing ankle replacement surgery outside of a secondary care setting with the appropriate governance in place.

You can check a surgeon’s qualifications on the General Medical Council’s (GMC) website.

If you are searching for a surgeon to perform an ankle replacement, you can search the number of cases your surgeon performs a year on the UK National Joint Registry for Ankle Replacements.

Questions to ask your surgeon

It’s always good to have a list of questions to ask your surgeon. Some of these are general questions to ensure you are undergoing the correct procedure and others relate to them being the best person for the job.

It is important to have confidence in the doctor who will be doing your surgery. Whether this is someone you have chosen yourself, or a doctor or surgeon you have been referred to, you can make sure that he or she is qualified. This may include any or all of the following:

How many of these operations do you perform a year?

Some operations are uncommon and your surgeon will tell you if this is the case, in which case they will not be expected to perform many of those operations per year. Other operations are more common but maybe not in the hands of your surgeon, in which case the surgeon may wish to refer you to a relevant colleague.

In the case of ankle replacements, there is a National Joint Registry for Ankle Replacements and this contains details of all ankle replacements performed both in the NHS and in the private sector. Putting information onto the NJR is a mandated requirement. If your surgeon questions the information on the NJR, beware. In some cases they may be right and a technical error may account for why the information is inaccurate, but your surgeon can easily remedy that by speaking directly with the NJR. You may ask the surgeon about his or her record of successes, as well as complications.

Where is your NHS practice?

If you are seeing a specialist privately, it is worth asking where their NHS practice is. Most surgeons’ work both in the NHS and the private sector. There are a few surgeons who after a long career in the NHS have decided to work just in the private sector and this is fine as they often are the more experienced surgeons. If a surgeon is not senior and lacks a long track record in the NHS, you may wish to delve a little deeper into the reasons they have decided to deviate from a long recognised path.

Should I seek a second opinion?

In certain cases, such as complex problems, or revision surgery, you can never have enough opinions and a good specialist would be very happy to recommend another surgeon for you to have a second opinion from. Be cautious of a surgeon who tries to talk you out of seeing someone else.

What is the operation being recommended?

A good surgeon will explain the procedure in simple terms that are easy to understand. If not then ask questions until you fully understand.

Is there an alternative to this operation?

Ask if there is an alternative to the surgery being recommended. In the case of ankle arthritis ankle fusion and ankle replacement are both accepted surgical treatments and you should be allowed to understand both procedures before deciding which to undergo. If your doctor favours one treatment over another ask why.

Why is the procedure needed?

Reasons to have surgery vary from treating pain, or improving function. It is important that you explain your expectations at the outset, so that your doctor can tell you whether they will or will not be met.

What are the possible risks and complications of surgery?

Surgery always carries some risks, so it is important to weigh the benefits against the risks of surgery.

What happens if I decide not to have the operation?

Before surgery is tried many non-surgical treatments should be considered, such as weight loss, activity modification, pain killers and ankle braces. Have these been tried and failed?

If you decide, after weighing the benefits and risks, not to have the surgery, what will happen? Could it resolve by itself? Will it worsen? If so what are the implications of that?

What type of anesthestic will I have?

Your surgeon will discuss the different types of anaesthetic including local, regional, or general anaesthesia.

Some health insurers ask you to check who the anaesthetist is, and they may say something like, he or she is not fee assured. It is rare that anaesthetists will charge you extra over and above the insurer’s payment but it is also very important for the hospital and your surgeon to be transparent about costs at the outset so that you are not suddenly exposed to charges you were not expecting.

What will my schedule of follow up visits be?

Ask whether you will be seen after the surgery for a wound check and removal of stitches and what the schedule will be thereafter. For most complex ankle procedures you will be seen at 2, 6 and 12 weeks after the procedure. For an ankle replacement, you will also need a follow up at 1 year, and it is important that you confirm with your health insurer that you will be covered.

Will I need any additional drugs or equipment?

After the surgery you may need low molecular weight heparin (eg Clexane) and its important that you understand this before the surgery so you can plan, both the logistics of how this will be administered as well as whether or not the costs will be covered by your insurer.

You may also need crutches, a special boot or ankle brace and changes of plaster cast. It is important you fully understand these costs before beginning and also checking with your health insurer what they will and will not cover. Knowing this information in advance will help you recover better without the stress.

What are the costs of this operation?

Similarly it is important to fully understand the costs of the surgery before you begin. In the NHS, surgery is free and so this is not relevant. In the private sector it is essential you are fully aware of all costs before you begin. The costs include, the surgeon’s fee, the anaesthetist’s fee, the hospital charges and any additional drugs or equipment that are needed. In addition, depending on how many follow up appointments are needed and whether or not you need to have the plaster cast changed.

Some hospitals will do a package costs so that all charges are included. In others it is essential you are fully aware of what sort of costs you may be liable for before beginning. Even if your insurer tells you that all costs are covered, it is worth asking them for an itemised breakdown of the costs as they may not tell you for example that the surgeon’s fee is often just 10% of the total cost of the package.

Other top tips for communicating with your surgeon

It is important that you have all your questions answered fully before you begin. If you do not understand your surgeon’s answers, say so and keep asking questions until you do.

Feel free to take notes of your consultation or ask a friend or relative to do so. Ask your surgeon to confirm your discussion in writing afterwards.

Ask your doctor for a patient information sheet or online sources of information to read more about your surgery.

Finding a surgeon to perform an ankle replacement

We cannot recommend the UK’s best or top orthopaedic surgeon, nor any one surgeon over another. Below we list in alphabetical order some of the most experienced ankle replacement and ankle fusion surgeons in the UK.

  • Mr Andrew Bing – Oswestry
  • Mr Chris Blundell – Sheffield
  • Mr Timothy Clough – Wrightington
  • Mr Paul Cooke – Oxford
  • Mr Sunil Dhar – Nottingham
  • Mr Andrew Goldberg OBE – London
  • Mr Nicholas Harris – Leeds
  • Mr Michael Karski – Wrightington
  • Mr Malik Siddique – Newcastle
  • Mr Rhys Thomas – Cardiff
  • Mr Ian Winson – Bristol

Go and see them and use this framework to ask the right questions. No matter whether your insurer is BUPA, AXA PPP, Aviva, PruHealth, Simply Health, Cigna or Simply Health, remember, this is a procedure you only want to be performed once, so it’s important to get it right first time.

Good luck…