BACKGROUND The purpose of the study was to determine patient expectations for the outcomes of three elective surgical procedures, the extent to which patient expectations for surgery were met, the reasons for unmet expectations, and the factors that might predict unmet expectations. Better understanding of these questions might help identify targeted interventions to better prepare patients for specific health care experiences. METHODS In a longitudinal, prospective design, a convenience sample of 445 patients (age range, 18 to 86 years) at a general surgery clinic at a major academic medical center was included--177 patients undergoing inguinal hernia repair, 146 undergoing parathyroidectomy, and 122 undergoing cholecystectomy. Patients completed both standardized and newly developed condition-specific health survey instruments. Preoperative interviews were administered, followed by mailed surveys 2 months after surgery. RESULTS Between 9% and 27% of the respondents reported unmet expectations, with significant variation by condition; reasons included perceived lack of symptom relief, surgical complications, and process of care issues. Patients undergoing parathyroidectomy had a greater probability of unmet expectations. Both feeling prepared for surgery and improved postoperative symptom relief and role functioning reduced the probability of unmet expectations. DISCUSSION To reduce the level of unmet expectations, patients need to be prepared both for the surgical experience and for what to expect in the recovery phase. This is especially true for complex illnesses such as primary hyperparathyroidism. Innovative educational strategies to ensure adequate preparation for surgery will be needed, and attention will need to be paid to latent, unstated process measures, if unmet expectations are to be reduced.