Over 70% of elective surgeries in the United States are ambulatory or outpatient surgeries, in which the patient goes home the same day as the procedure.

There are increasing numbers of surgical patients who are elderly, obese, or who have multiple medical problems. How do we decide which 70% of surgical candidates are appropriate for outpatient surgery, and which are not?

For the past 12 years I’ve been the Medical Director at a busy Ambulatory Surgery Center (ASC) in Palo Alto, California. ASC Medical Directors are perioperative physicians, responsible for the preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative management of ambulatory surgery patients. Our surgery center is freestanding, distanced one mile from Stanford University Hospital. The hospital-based technologies of laboratory testing, a blood bank, an ICU, arterial blood gas measurement, and full radiology diagnostics are not available on site. It’s important that patient selection for a freestanding surgery center is precise and safe.

The topic of Ambulatory Anesthesia is well reviewed in the textbook Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th Edition, 2009, Chapter 78, Ambulatory (Outpatient) Anesthesia. With the information in this chapter as a foundation, the following 7 points are guidelines I recommend in the preoperative consultation and selection of appropriate outpatient surgery patients:

  1. The most important factor in deciding if a surgical case is appropriate is not how many medical problems the patient has, but rather the magnitude of the surgical procedure. A patient may have morbid obesity, sleep apnea, and a past history of congestive heart failure, but still safely undergo a non-invasive procedure such as cataract surgery. Conversely, if the patient is healthy, but the scheduled surgery is an invasive procedure such as resection of a mass in the liver, that surgery needs to be done in a hospital.
  2. Because of #1, an ASC will schedule noninvasive procedures such as arthroscopies, head and neck procedures, eye surgeries, minor gynecology and general surgery procedures, gastroenterology endoscopies, plastic surgeries, and dental surgeries. What all these scheduled procedures have in common is that the surgeries (a) will not disrupt the postoperative physiology in a major way, and (b) will not cause excessive pain requires inpatient intravenous narcotics.
  3. One must screen patients preoperatively to identify individuals who have serious medical problems. Our facility uses a comprehensive preoperative telephone interview performed by a medical assistant, two days prior to surgery. The interview documents age, height, weight, Body Mass Index, complete review of systems, list of allergies, and prescription drug history. All information is entered in the patient’s medical record at that time.
  4. Each surgeon’s office assists in the preoperative screening. For all patients who have (a) age over 65, (b) obstructive sleep apnea, (c) cardiac disease or arrhythmia history, (d) significant lung disease, (e) shortness of breath or chest pain, (f) renal failure or hepatic failure, (g) insulin dependent diabetes, or (h) significant neurological abnormality, the surgery office is required to obtain medical clearance from the patient’s Primary Care Provider (PCP).    This PCP clearance note concludes with two questions: 1) Does the patient require any further diagnostic testing prior to the scheduled surgery? And 2) Does the patient require any further therapeutic measures prior to the scheduled surgery?
  5. For each patient identified with significant medical problems, the Medical Director must review the chart and the Primary Care Provider note, and confirm that the patient is an appropriate candidate for the outpatient surgery. The Medical Director may telephone the patient for a more detailed history if indicated. On rare occasions, the Medical Director may arrange to meet and examine the patient prior to the surgical date.
  6. Medical judgment is required, as some ASA III patients with significant comorbidities are candidates for trivial outpatient procedures such as gastroenterology endoscopy or removal of a neuroma from a finger, but are inappropriate candidates for a shoulder arthroscopy or any procedure that requires general endotracheal anesthesia.
  7. What about laboratory testing? Per Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th Edition, 2009, Chapter 78, few preoperative lab tests are indicated prior to most ambulatory surgery. We require a recent ECG for patients with a history of hypertension, cardiac disease, or for any patient over 65 years in age. If this ECG is not included with the Primary Care Provider consultation note, we perform the ECG on site in the preoperative area of our ASC, at no charge to the patient. All diabetic patients have a fasting glucose test done prior to surgery. No electrolytes, hematocrit, renal function tests, or hepatic tests are required on any patient unless that patient’s history indicates a specific reason to mandate those tests.

Utilizing this system, cancellations on the day of surgery are infrequent—well below 1% of the scheduled procedures. The expense of and inconvenience of an Anesthesia Preoperative Clinic are eliminated.

What sort of cases are not approved? Here are examples from my practice regarding patients/procedures who are/are not appropriate for surgery at a freestanding ambulatory surgery center:

  1. A 45-year-old patient with moderately severe obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is scheduled for a UPPP (uvulopalatalpharyngoplasty). DECISION: NOT APPROPRIATE. Reference: American Society of Anesthesiologist Practice Guidelines of the Perioperative Management of Patients with OSA ( For airway and palate surgery on an OSA patient, the patient is best observed in a medical facility post-surgery. For any surgery this painful in an OSA patient, the patient will require significant narcotics, which place him at risk for apnea and airway obstruction post-surgery.
  2. A morbidly obese male (Body Mass Index = 40) is scheduled for a shoulder arthroscopy and rotator cuff repair. DECISION: NOT APPROPRIATE. Obesity is not an automatic exclusion criterion for outpatient surgery. Whether to cancel the case or not depends on the nature of the surgery. A shoulder repair often requires significant postoperative narcotics. The intersection of morbid obesity and a painful surgery means it’s best to do the case in a hospital. One could argue that this patient could be done with an interscalene block for postoperative analgesia and then discharged home, but I don’t support this decision. If the block is difficult or ineffective, the anesthesiologist has a morbidly obese patient requiring significant doses of narcotics, and who is scheduled to be discharged home. If this surgery had been a knee arthroscopy and medial meniscectomy it could be an appropriate outpatient surgery, because meniscectomy patients have minimal pain postoperatively.
  3. An 18-year-old male with a positive family history of Malignant Hyperthermia is scheduled for a tympanoplasty. DECISION: APPROPRIATE. A trigger-free general total-intravenous anesthetic with propofol and remifenantil can be given just as safely in an ASC as in a hospital.
  4. A 50-year-old 70-kilogram male with a known difficult airway (ankylosing spondylitis) is scheduled for endoscopic sinus surgery. DECISION: APPROPRIATE. In our ASC, for safety reasons, we have advanced airway equipment including a video laryngoscope and a fiberoptic laryngoscope. If a patient needs an awake intubation, we are prepared to do this safely. This case would be scheduled with a second anesthesiologist available to assist the primary anesthesia attending in securing the airway.
  5. An 80-year-old woman with shortness of breath on exertion is scheduled for a bunionectomy. DECISION: NOT APPROPRIATE. Although foot surgery is not a major invasive procedure, any patient with shortness of breath is inappropriate for ASC surgery. The nature of the dyspnea needs to be determined and remedied prior to surgery or anesthesia of any sort.
  6. A 6-year-old female born without an ear is scheduled for a 9-hour ear graft and reconstruction. DECISION: APPROPRIATE. With modern general anesthetic techniques utilizing sevoflurane and propofol, patients awake promptly. Even after long anesthetics, if the surgery is not painful, patients are usually discharged in stable condition within 60-90 minutes.

There are infinite combinations of patient comorbidities and types of surgeries. The decision regarding which scheduled procedures are appropriate and which are not is both an art and a science. The role of an anesthesiologist/Medical Director as the perioperative physician making these decisions is invaluable.

Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:




  1. Can you give me your thoughts on requiring dialysis patients scheduled for a colonoscopy at an ASC to have dialysis the day before and a K+ the morning of their procedure?


    1. Colonoscopy preps can cause dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities in patients with normal kidney function. In an anuric dialysis patient the issue is more complicated. The safest way to handle colonoscopy in a dialysis patient is to consult with the nephrologist several days preop.

      An advisable plan may include a HalfLytely prep the night before, hemodialysis the morning of colonoscopy, and colonoscopy to follow in the afternoon following dialysis. It would be prudent to document that the serum potassium concentration is within the normal range following the dialysis and prior to the colonoscopy.


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