What is the Risk of Death from Surgery?

The Serious Risks of Surgery

A Surgeon at Work.

Question: I was discussing the risks of my surgery with my surgeon. He said that death was one of the risks of surgery that I might face. Should I be worried?

Answer: Surgery should never be taken lightly; in fact all surgeries have a risk of death. Even elective surgeries, such as plastic (cosmetic) surgery can result in the death of the patient. 

To be clear, some surgeries have a much higher risk level than others.

For example, during some open heart surgeries, the heart is actually stopped for almost an hour before being restarted. That surgery has a higher risk than carpal tunnel surgery which is performed on a patient’s hand and wrist, often in an outpatient surgery center.

Your personal health history (including diabetes, breathing problems and smoking history), age, weight, the type of surgery being performed, your ability to tolerate anesthesia, the skill of the surgeon, where the surgery is being done, the type of procedure, the skill of the anesthesia provider and many more variables play a role in your personal risk level when it comes to dying during surgery.

If you are considering surgery, ask your surgeon about the risk of death during the procedure you are planning. Your doctor can take your personal health into account, along with the typical risks of the procedure, to give you a more accurate idea of your personal level of risk.

It is not unreasonable to ask for your risk as a number, as in "there is a five percent risk of death during this procedure".

It is important to know that deaths during and immediately after surgery are usually a result of a reaction to anesthesia rather than an issue with the surgical procedure itself.

Surgeries related to trauma, such as a serious car accident, have a higher risk level than a planned and scheduled procedure.

Learn more about the risks of surgery. Discuss your concerns with your surgeon and find out what kind of risk is involved in the surgery you need.

Patient Information Pamphlet, American College of Surgeons, 2007