How to Find a Top Thyroid Surgeon

Having an Experienced Surgeon Reduces Your Risk of Complications

It takes experience to save lives
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If you've been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, or have one of a number of other thyroid conditions, your doctor may recommend surgery. There are several different surgical procedures involving the thyroid, and your diagnosis will determine which one is appropriate for you. For the best outcome, it is important to find an experienced, top-notch thyroid surgeon—one that has not only performed your procedure, but has done it many times, among other qualifications.

Types of Thyroid Surgeons

Several different types of surgeons can perform thyroid surgery. To some extent, the type of surgeon you'll need depends on your specific diagnosis, but there are other considerations as well, such as how experienced a surgeon is in performing these procedures and the options available where you live.

Types of thyroid surgeons and their specialties include:

  • General surgeons: These surgeons are able to operate on many parts of the body, including the thyroid. Because they don't specialize in thyroid surgery, however, they may not perform a high volume of these procedures per year. Experience will vary from surgeon to surgeon, so it's important to ask how familiar this doctor is with the specific type of surgery you need.
  • Otolaryngologists: Also known as ear, nose, and throat doctors (ENTs)—or head and neck surgeons—otolaryngologists specialize in treating problems in the neck and throat. A 2018 study showed that patients with benign thyroid disease were less likely to experience damage to their vocal cords when surgery was performed by an ENT versus a general surgeon. In addition, these doctors are trained to remove lymph nodes, which may be necessary in the case of cancer that has spread to the nodes close to the thyroid.
  • Endocrine surgeons: Endocrine surgeons receive training in surgery of all of the endocrine glands, including the thyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands, and pituitary glands.
  • Oncological surgeons: Most surgeons trained in thyroid removal are able to operate on patients with thyroid cancer. However, if removing the cancerous tissue is more complicated than usual, an oncological surgeon may be required.
Why You Might Need Thyroid Surgery

Surgical Experience and Complications

Research indicates that the more experience your thyroid surgeon has, the less likely you are to have complications. One study conducted by the neoplastic diseases unit at Duke University in 2017 reported that patients treated by surgeons who performed fewer than 25 thyroid removal surgeries per year were as much as 1.5 times more likely to have complications. A review of post-surgical records showed that doctors who did six to 10 thyroid surgeries per year had a 42 percent greater risk of complications than those who performed more than 25 annually.

A 2016 study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Neck Surgery also found that patients whose thyroid surgery is performed by high-volume surgeons (those who perform more than 30 thyroidectomies a year) had a lower risk of complications than patients who are operated on by low-volume surgeons (those who do one to three of these procedures annually). The risk of complications was 7.7 percent and 15.8 percent, respectively.

As a result, many experts recommend that you only consider surgeons who perform no fewer than 50 surgeries per year; this is especially true if you have thyroid cancer, as the surgeon must remove all of the cancerous tissue.

The problem, of course, is that there are far fewer surgeons who meet this criterion than you might imagine.

On average, 6 percent of thyroid surgeries result in complications. Complications can include bleeding and damage to the laryngeal nerve that can make it difficult to speak, breathe, and swallow.

Where to Begin

Finding a high-volume thyroid surgeon is not as easy as it may seem. This is especially true if you live in a rural community far from an urban center.

The best place to start is to ask your doctor for a referral based on who he would go to if he or a loved one needed thyroid surgery.

There are various online directories offered by professional associations and non-profit healthcare groups that can be useful as well. One of the best is managed by the American Thyroid Association; their website can help locate a qualified specialist based on your zip code or city/state.

You can then check the doctor's credentials by using the live, updated Certification Matters website operated by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

The online review site HealthGrades provides you the first-hand perspectives of current and former patients, as well as an extensive breakdown of the doctor's qualifications, credentials, areas of expertise, and background (including malpractice cases and board actions).

Beyond that, you will need to consider the offices that will accept your insurance and take the time to assess the performance of the hospital itself (including facilities, mortality rates, rates of complications, etc.) HealthGrades may be one of the better sites for finding this information.

Narrowing Your Search

To find the best surgeon, you may need to consider traveling to a university hospital or medical center outside of your immediate area. It should have a high-volume surgical unit specializing in thyroidectomies. A surgeon who exclusively performs thyroid/parathyroid surgery is almost always a better choice than a general surgeon or a head/neck surgeon.

Once you find a candidate, schedule an appointment and consider going there with a partner or loved one so you can be sure all your questions are answered and concerns are addressed.

Questions you may want to ask include:

  • What kind of training have you received?
  • How many thyroidectomies do you perform in a year?
  • What are your complication rates?
  • What results do you usually see? Do you have outcomes data to share?
  • How frequently do you encounter complications from the surgery? 
  • What do you do to avoid complications or correct them if they occur?

In addition, ask yourself how comfortable and confident you feel about choosing this surgeon.

Post-Thyroidectomy Side Effects and Recovery

A Word From Verywell

While you clearly don't want the search for a talented thyroid surgeon to take forever (in some cases, you may need to make a decision quickly), it's important to do some research and make an informed decision based on full disclosure and transparent communication between you and the prospective surgeon. 

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