If you develop gallstones—hardened deposits of digestive fluid—and have symptoms like pain in your upper right abdomen, pain between your shoulder blades, nausea, or vomiting, a gastroenterologist may refer you to a general surgeon for gallbladder removal.
Amino found that the median network rate for laparoscopic gallbladder removal surgery is $8,461, while the median network rate for open gallbladder removal surgery is $10,874. Keep in mind—this is an estimate for what you and your health insurance company might pay together (combined) for your surgery.
Read on to learn more about what gallbladder removal surgery is and who might need to have it done.
What is gallbladder removal surgery?
Gallbladder removal surgery, also known as a cholecystectomy, is a surgery to remove your gallbladder—a small organ on the right side of your abdomen, just underneath your liver.
The need for surgery is often diagnosed by a gastroenterologist (more on that below), but the surgery itself is usually performed by a general surgeon. There are two main types of gallbladder removal surgeries: laparoscopic cholecystectomy and open cholecystectomy.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy is the most common type for gallbladder removal. During a laparoscopic cholecystectomy, your doctor will make several small incisions in your abdomen and insert a laparoscope (a small, lighted scope with a video camera attached to the end). This helps to guide the surgeon's instruments as they remove your gallbladder. Generally, a laparoscopic gallbladder removal is safe and effective, comes with few risks, and has a shorter recovery time.
Open cholecystectomy is less common and more invasive than laparoscopic removal. During an open cholecystectomy, a surgeon will make a large incision across your abdomen to remove your gallbladder. Although there are more risks associated with open surgery, it is sometimes preferred for removing severely diseased gallbladders.
According to the American College of Surgeons (ACS), a gallbladder removal that starts laparoscopically can be converted to an open surgery if the gallbladder can’t be removed safely. In young, healthy people this is rare, happening only about 1% of the time. However, the odds can be as high as 30% if you’re over 65, male, or have other complicated risk factors.
If you have an open gallbladder removal, you can expect a hospital stay of two to four days and a recovery time of four to six weeks. If you have a laparoscopic gallbladder removal, you will probably be able to go home the same or next day, and your recovery time should only be about one week.
Who needs gallbladder removal surgery?
The most common reason for gallbladder removal is gallstones, hardened deposits of digestive fluid that can form in your gallbladder. Gallstones can be small and pass through on their own, or they can be large and cause a blockage. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why gallstones form, but there are a few suspected reasons:
Too much cholesterol in your bile. If your liver creates more cholesterol than the bile can dissolve, yellow gallstones can form.
Too much bilirubin in your bile. When your liver destroys old red blood cells, a chemical called bilirubin is produced. If you have liver damage or certain blood disorders, your liver can produce an excess of bilirubin. If your gallbladder can’t break down the excess bilirubin, hard dark brown or black gallstones can form.
Concentrated bile from a full gallbladder. In order to work properly, your gallbladder needs to empty its bile. If it can’t, the bile can become highly concentrated, which can cause gallstones to form.
If you have gallstones that are blocking bile from exiting your gallbladder, you may need to have your gallbladder removed. Symptoms of a gallbladder blockage include:
- Pain in your right shoulder
- Pain between your shoulder blades
- Pain in your upper right abdomen
- High fever with chills
- Yellowing of your skin and eyes
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor right away, since they can be indicators of a serious gallbladder infection. There are also certain risk factors that may increase your risk of forming gallstones. These include:
- Being female
- Being age 40 or older
- Being overweight or obese
- Being sedentary
- Being pregnant
- Eating a high-fat diet
- Eating too much cholesterol
- Not getting enough fiber
- Having diabetes
- Having a family history of gallstones
- Taking oral contraceptives that contain estrogen
- Having liver disease
The gallbladder is an important part of the body’s digestive process, but it’s not considered critical for living a healthy life. Not everyone who has gallstones will experience symptoms. If you’re unsure what you need, consult a doctor.
Are there alternatives to a gallbladder removal?
Gallbladder removal surgery is considered one of the safest surgical procedures and is the only option that eliminates the chance of more gallstones developing in the future. Still, gallstones will sometimes break down on their own. If you don’t have a severe gallbladder infection, your doctor may advise you to wait and see if the gallstones go away on their own.
There are certain other, non-invasive procedures (including shock wave therapy and prescription drugs) that may also help dissolve gallstones, although they’re not always an effective option. Make sure to ask your doctor what’s best for you.
What determines the cost of gallbladder removal surgery?
Amino found the median network rate for gallbladder removal surgery depends on what type of surgery you have. Laparoscopic gallbladder removal tends to cost less, with a median network rate of $8,461. Open gallbladder removal is typically more expensive, with a median network rate of $10,874. In addition, we found that the cost ranges across the US for both types of surgery from $5,491 to $17,391—a huge difference.
Here are some factors that could impact how much your gallbladder removal surgery costs:
Where you live often affects how much your surgery costs, especially since it determines which hospitals and doctors are available to you. For example, if you live in an urban area, you may have more options to choose from.
The network rate, which is what our estimates are based on, is negotiated between your health insurance company and doctor or hospital—so your insurance company and whatever provider you choose will play a large role in determining cost.
Your health insurance plan affects the cost of your surgery for a few reasons. Whether your surgeon is in-network or out-of-network can impact the overall cost. Your co-insurance and co-pay, as well as how much of your deductible you have left, can also make a difference in how much you pay out-of-pocket.
What happens during the procedure, such as what kind of anesthesia you get, whether your anesthesiologist is in-network or out-of-network, and what type of surgery you have (open or laparoscopic), can change the cost. If complications occur during surgery, you might have additional unexpected costs.
Your personal health also plays a role in how much your surgery costs. If you go into surgery with preexisting health problems, there could be additional expenses.
Now that you know how much gallbladder removal surgery could cost, let’s explore insurance coverage and how to get the most care for your money.
Will health insurance cover your gallbladder removal surgery?
Most insurers will cover gallbladder removal surgery as long as it’s medically necessary, which may require proof that you had gallstones or gallbladder pancreatitis. Medicare and Medicaid usually cover a portion of a necessary gallbladder removal, too.
If you don’t have insurance, you may have to pay the full cost of surgery out-of-pocket. Where you get care (which doctor and facility you go to) can have a big impact on your total cost.
How to get the most for your money
Even if your insurance does cover some or most of your gallbladder removal, you’ll likely pay some portion of the cost out-of-pocket. To make sure you’re getting the most (and best) care for your money:
Ask your insurance company about your costs, like co-insurance, copays, and deductibles.
Utilize your Health Savings Account (HSA), Flexible Spending Account (FSA), or Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) to cover out-of-pocket expenses.
Use Amino to compare prices for different doctors.
Look into outpatient centers—they often have more affordable surgery options.
Have a conversation with your doctor. This is especially important if you don’t have insurance and are paying for your surgery yourself. Some doctors will offer a discount or an interest-free payment plan if they know you’re shouldering the cost on your own.