Insider’s Guide to Vasectomy Reversal

Something like 25,000 American men a year want more children after having a vasectomy. The more popular of two options for fatherhood after vasectomy is a vasectomy reversal; the other choice is sperm retrieval for men and in vitro fertilization (IVF, “test tube baby”) for their partners. Even though it is a surgical procedure that is technically quite challenging and not generally covered by medical insurance plans, clearly reversals have a major leg up on high-tech, IVF conceptions: you can do what you do best and do it at home, the old-fashioned way, to conceive.

Who Does Vasectomy Reversals?

Among the 10,000 or so practicing urologists in the U.S., maybe 5-10% of them are interested in performing vasectomy reversals and far fewer than 1% are fellowship trained microsurgeons who specialize in this procedure. So, how do you decide to whom you should go to have this done?

Deciding on a Surgeon

Not all doctors are same. If you didn’t know this before, you heard it here first. Some are average run-of-the-mill, some are better, and others are truly gifted and talented at what they do. And the difference between an average doctor and a great doctor is the quality of the product. Did you actually get what you asked for, or what you expected to get?
You can read all over the Internet about ways to choose your reversal surgeon. These parcels of advice are helpful and may lead you to find a good surgeon instead of an average one. But if you want the highest quality surgeon, here are six key issues to consider as you search and shop:

  1. Does the surgeon enjoy doing vasectomy reversals? I’ve met countless surgeons who are pleasant enough in or out of the office but who are simply miserable in the operating room. I can’t explain why. Personally, reversals are my favorite thing to do (at work). It is a craft and an art form of the highest caliber, the elixir of a surgical life.  A surgeon who loves what he does will do a better job of it.
  2. Does the surgeon pay attention to details? I can’t recall who said this, but life really is in the details. And microsurgery, performed at 1/25 normal scale, is the ultimate detail-oriented surgical procedure. Has the surgeon gotten all of your details? How about your medications? Habits? Your partner’s issues? How neat is their office? How comprehensive and detail-oriented are the staff?
  3. How long will you have to wait to get the procedure done? You may think that if you have to wait a long time to get the reversal performed that the surgeon is very busy at doing reversals. Honestly, it could mean that (s)he doesn’t operate very much or that (s)he spends a lot of time out of the office or doing other procedures. In other words, reversals may not be a priority for the surgeon (see #1 above). Or, the office itself may be disorganized (see #2 above). The better way to assess “busy” is to look them in the eye and ask them how many vasectomy reversal cases they do each year.
  4. What are your surgeon’s success rates? You see success rates of surgeons on every website. And they all look the same and are all very high. What does this mean? How do you decide? Frankly, many surgeons quote the published rates of other surgeons, kind of like selling “knock offs” instead of the real thing. This may be fine for buying purses but not for vasectomy reversals. Peer-reviewed and journal-published data is an excellent measure of quality: it is the certified seal of authenticity. So, ask that simple question: Has the surgeon published their success rates in trade journals?
  5. How many reversals does the surgeon perform annually? Do Olympic athletes or concert musicians win competitions through talent alone? Of course not. It’s all about the training. Similarly, a good predictor of reversal success is surgical volume or the number of cases. Volume means practice and practice makes perfect. This is true for almost all surgical procedures in medicine and is also true with reversals.
  6. Does your surgeon want what you want? You don’t really want a reversal, you really want a kid, right? And you don’t want to sell that old car or mortgage a property to get it. Let’s say that the cost matters a lot for you. If IVF is covered by insurance and a reversal is not, then IVF may be the cheaper way to go. In this case, the surgeon should not keep giving the hard sell for vasectomy reversal. There are several paths to fatherhood. Make sure that your surgeon shares your goals. For me, it’s the holiday card that matters the most.