The standard advice you hear when choosing a health professional is "Ask to talk to some of their existing patients". The problem with this technique is (besides the fact that today's laws probably prohibit the doctor from giving out the names of any of their other patients), the doctor would be able to vet the list to give you only people who'd recommend him. Also, if you're like me, you'd feel really wierd calling up people you don't know and asking them "So... how'd that colon resection turn out for you?".
Instead, I'll share with you a few tips that, in retrospect, would probably have led me to choose a different surgeon from the one that I did.
Get Surgical Reports : I didn't know this but, apparently, surgeons carefull document everything that they do in the surgery. What they took out, what they put in, where they cut, what they saw... even down to what kind of bandages they dressed your wounds with. Ask the surgeons clerical staff for copies of the surgical reports that are handy (with the patients' names blacked out, of course). There will be a lot of terms that you don't understand. Surf the web until you learn what they mean.
Once you're able to understand each report, you'll have an idea of how aggressive or conservative the surgeon is... for that is one of the more-important characteristics of the surgeon (aside from their actual skill, of course). Think about it. During the surgery, you're going to be out. This is the one time when you won't have any say as to whether the surgeon should try to save some organ/tendon/ligament or just remove it. The surgeon's judgement is going to be sole vote... so make sure that you're okay with that.
Ask to See What They Send You Home With : After surgery, they sent me home with a 8.5x11" piece of paper with a few terse instructions on it and two pamphlets describing the use of some of the equipment that was in/on me when I left. Was I supposed to change the dressing on the sutures? How often? Was I ever supposed to unlock or remove the knee brace? Was I supposed to be taking ibuprofin for swelling? Was I supposed to be eating any particular foods to help bone regrowth? How about some exercises, and how often?
The document I was given didn't answer any of these questions, and it was terribly depressing. I felt as though I stopped existing to the surgeon's office once the incisions were closed. I pretty much could have spent the entire 2 weeks until my post-op visit pemanently planted on the couch, not moving, consuming nothing but Jim Beam and potato chips and I'd still be in compliance with my discharge instructions.
So, see if you can get a feel for how well they chart the post-operative course for you. There's not much as frustrating as wanting to get better, but not having any clue how.
And they don't, necessarily, need to provide you with printed material. It could be on their website. In fact, if it weren't for these guys at Orthopedic Associates of Portland, I'd have been completely in the dark regarding what kind of stuff I should have been doing. These guys are the polar opposite of the ortho group I selected. These guys have everything completely laid out in front of you, so that you know exactly what to expect and when. They must think that patients would actually appreciate that or something. Sheesh!
Talk to People in the Lobby : This is kinda like the "ask to talk to previous patients" advice, but you're not calling them up. You can spot some people that are clearly post-operative and you can strike up a converation with them. Primarily, ask them how well they are being treated by the surgeon's office after the surgery... how good/bad they feel about having the procedure done and how much of that is attributable to the behavior of the surgeon and his staff.