Health care is in the spotlight again, with politicians, pundits, payers and physicians weighing in on how it should be paid for and delivered. While these are no small concerns, we must never lose sight of the most important issue in health care: patient safety.

At a recent industry meeting, thousands of spine specialists from around the globe gathered to learn the very latest in evidence-based diagnosis, treatment and research. The discussions inevitably came back to the all-important concern: “How we can keep our patients safe?”

Who’s accountable?

We must first acknowledge that safety is everyone’s responsibility, including the patient. An educated patient who participates actively in their own care is the best partner a physician can have. Patients need to do their homework and ask their health care professionals some important questions.

Physicians must take the time to educate their patients about their conditions, treatment options and potential outcomes. In particular, doctors must be open about their own qualifications, industry relationships and history of outcomes.

Promoting transparency

Take for example minimally invasive surgery, which promises minimal pain, small incisions, and good outcomes for surgeries such as discectomy or laminectomy and spinal fusion. These are sometimes performed by practitioners who call themselves “minimally invasive surgeons,” even though they have not completed years of accredited surgical training like neurosurgeons or orthopedic spine surgeons.

Spine specialists in  pain management, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and interventional radiology are fully qualified to perform many spine procedures, such as injections. These are not, however, surgical procedures. Together, spine surgeons and nonoperative spine specialists offer all available services.

“We must first acknowledge that safety is everyone’s responsibility, including the patient.”

However, accredited and certified spine surgeons can offer non-operative treatments such as spinal injections, implantation of pain control devices, or bracing in their practices, even if they have not had comprehensive training in those procedures.

What to research

There is nothing inherently wrong with physicians of any specialty offering treatments outside of their narrow job titles, assuming they have the appropriate training. However, to keep patients safe, the following conditions are essential. First and foremost, verify they have appropriate training or certification for the recommended procedure. Next, ask yourself if the specialist has a record of monitoring short- and long-term outcomes of his or her treatments.

Thirdly, ensure appropriate certification and credentials for the hospital or ambulatory center. And finally, determine the availability of prompt surgical consultation in the case of complications, including infection, bleeding or nerve compression.

How exactly can a patient determine whether these criteria are being met? Your health care team should be willing to give that information, so just ask.

Committing to treatment

First, be absolutely clear about what your doctor’s specialty is before you agree to treatment. Ask your minimally invasive surgeon if they have been trained as a surgeon, and if they are board-certified. If not, find out if this specific spine procedure is done most frequently by surgeons or others, such as interventional radiologists.

Second, ask your doctor about her outcomes for the recommended procedure, both the successes and the complications. Physicians collect that data for reporting purposes and they should be happy to share it with you.

Finally, be certain that the suggested procedure will be performed in a safe setting, where a team of specialists trained to handle potential problems, such as infections, excessive bleeding, or respiratory issues, is available. A team approach that can provide appropriate and timely backup care is critical to patient safety.