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What to expect from day surgery

We speak to the experts to prepare you for your procedure

A female doctor preparing for day surgery by putting disposable gloves on
A female doctor preparing for day surgery by putting disposable gloves on

Day surgery might not involve an overnight hospital stay – but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less daunting, especially if it’s your first time. We spoke to intensive care nurse and assistant professor of medicine at Bond University, Jessica Stokes-Parish, about everything you need to know before heading to hospital for a day procedure.

If you are going under general anaesthetic, you won’t be able to eat or drink in the hours leading up to the procedure (your anaesthetist will let you know exactly how long beforehand you need to fast for). It’s usually fine to take your regular medications with a sip of water on the day, but be sure to discuss with your doctor, so you know whether to take them as usual or delay them; and flag all medications with your anaesthetist, as some – such as antidepressants, anti-inflammatories, diabetes medications and anticoagulants like aspirin – may require special instructions.

Even for a quick procedure, you’ll need to arrive at the hospital with plenty of time to be admitted and fill in any forms required – usually a few hours beforehand. Once you’re all signed in, “you’ll usually be taken to the day surgery area,” says Jess. Here, a nurse will get some standard information, such as checking your pulse, noting your blood pressure, and taking down your weight and temperature.

Your anaesthetist may also visit to ask about your health history, past experiences with anaesthesia, medications, allergies, your smoking and drinking habits, and even ask questions about dental work and indigestion.

Related: Who pays for what when it comes to your medical bills?

A male doctor reassuring a senior man by patting him on the shoulder

In the operating theatre

Before you go into theatre, “you’ll be taken to the anaesthetic bay, where the anaesthetic doctor will do their final checks and make sure that you aren’t allergic to the medications they’re planning on using," explains Jess.

“Don’t worry if you don’t recognise them at first – they might be in their theatre uniforms already. In fact, the whole team could be in gowns, masks and goggles,” Jess adds.

“But sometimes they’ll wait until it’s just about time to start to get their gear on.”

Staff you’ll see in the theatre

You’ll likely be awake as you enter the operating theatre, which Jess says can be “very clinical-looking and cold”, but there’s nothing to worry about – for most procedures you will have already met your medical team, so there won’t be many strangers in there. Along with your doctor/s, nurses and anaesthetist, you might also see transport staff, who get you into and out of theatre.

“In some hospitals, they might be called wards or orderlies,” explains Jess.

Operating-theatre assistants may also be on hand to support moving patients while they’re asleep, and additional nurses may scrub in to help with positioning the arms and legs of the sleeping patient or retrieving additional equipment, says Jess.

After surgery

Once your procedure is finished, you’ll be taken to a recovery room and monitored for a few hours (your doctor can tell you how long you can expect to be there). You’ll likely be pretty groggy after anaesthesia and might also feel nauseous. Be sure to let the recovery-room nurses know if you’re in pain – they’re there to help you!

“Have somebody to drive you home,” advises Jess, as you can’t drive or operate heavy machinery for 24 hours after your procedure due to the after-effects of the anaesthetic. You should also avoid drinking alcohol, signing important documents or taking care of young children alone during this time. Ideally, you should have someone with you for 24 hours after surgery to keep an eye on you and help out if you need anything.

Quickfire FAQs

Jess answers some common day-surgery questions.

Do I have options when it comes to anaesthesia?

To a degree, says Jess. “You’ll meet with an anaesthetist to discuss the options, allergies or any previous reactions you might’ve had to anaesthetics in the past.” Most general anaesthetic is administered by injection through a drip in a vein, but for some, going to sleep by breathing an anaesthetic gas through a face mask might be possible if preferred.

Do I get to choose my doctor or nurse?

“In the public system, not really,” says Jess. “But you will be allocated a particular surgical team and, most of the time, you will have met with them prior. If you’re in the private system, typically, you would have a preferred doctor to who you’ve been referred. In terms of nursing, those allocations are made on the day depending on who is assigned to which theatre.

Related: referral to any specialist

How do I get information on recovery times?

Every procedure is different, so talk to your doctor and nurse before going in. “Typically, after a procedure involving anaesthetic, you have to be monitored for a few hours in recovery afterwards,” shares Jess. “But it’s worth asking your medical team things like what happens if something goes wrong and how long you’ll have to stay if that happens.”

Can I drink water before the procedure?

Normally, you can have water up until a couple of hours beforehand, says Jess, but you’ll be given instructions around what you can and can’t do for your specific surgery. Make sure you adhere to any fasting instructions - having any food or drink in your stomach can be dangerous.

Related: 18 questions about your surgery you’ve been too embarrassed to ask

Where will I be before and after surgery?

When you’re admitted to hospital, you’ll wait in the day-surgery area until it’s time for your procedure, when you’ll go to the anaesthetic bay. “After the surgery, you’re in the recovery room for a few hours to make sure you’re okay.”

Nurses in this area look after patients as they wake up. You may not remember much of this time due to the anaesthesia, but don’t worry – you’re in good hands.

What should I take with me to the hospital?

“Make sure you have something for dry lips, something warm for cold rooms and a water bottle for after the procedure,” advises Jess.

Need to head to hospital?

If you're an nib member heading to hospital soon, make sure you check out our Going to Hospital page. This tool gives you information on health insurance, tips on how to reduce out of pocket expenses and helpful questions to ask your specialist. To find out the details of your current policy, chat with someone about your upcoming hospital visit or get some guidance, call us on 13 16 42.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Jessica Stokes Parish

Jessica Stokes-Parish is a practising intensive care nurse and educator who holds a PhD in medicine from the University of Newcastle, as well as a bachelor of nursing, masters in nursing (advanced practice) and a graduate certificate in critical care nursing (intensive care). In addition to 10+ years of bedside nursing, her areas of focus include education for healthcare professionals, quality improvement for better patient outcomes and diversity in the health workforce. She is unashamedly a coffee snob, and you'll find her at her local drinking a piccolo or at home using her Aeropress.

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