If you are diagnosed with cancer or any chronic life-threatening condition, getting a second opinion may not only give you peace of mind, it may save your life. The fact is doctors can and do make mistakes—especially when diagnosing certain rare or complex disorders. And then there is the question of treatment. In meeting with additional doctors, you may learn of other treatment options not presented to you by your original physician.
In a time when you are most vulnerable, a second opinion can increase your degree of clarity and comfort in your diagnosis and give you a better understanding of your condition and treatment options so that you can choose your own path to recovery.
Unfortunately surveys reveal that half of Americans never seek a second opinion and only 3% always seek one for a serious diagnosis. Women in particular are reluctant to seek an additional point of view. Some are concerned they will offend their current doctor, others are overcome by fear and rush to start treatment.
The fact is a good doctor won't be insulted if you decide to ask for a second opinion. And for many serious diagnoses, your health insurance company may require one anyway. (Make sure you contact your health insurance provider regarding the proper procedure for obtaining second or third opinions and what, if any costs, are involved.)
Of course, not everyone should have a second opinion. When you are in the midst of an emergency situation and when diagnostic tests are clear and irrefutable (and there is only one course of treatment), second opinions may not be prudent or necessary.
However it is important to note that there are very few conditions that have only one treatment option. So if you are only presented with only one option, that itself can be a red flag—especially if you have concerns about the treatment plan presented.
The bottom line is this: If you are uncomfortable with any aspect of the diagnosis or treatment plan, seek additional information about your options. And if that means speaking with another doctor, then consider doing so.
Here are some basic guidelines that may help you decide when and how to get a second opinion.
Both men and women should seek a second opinion:
- for any diagnosis of cancer or a chronic illness
- for any type of non-emergency surgery
- when your doctor recommends long-term medication that has potential side effects
- if you are not feeling better despite repeated visits to your doctor
- when you have been told there is no further treatment that can help you
- for a rare condition
Women should get another opinion for certain gender-specific health issues:
- Hysterectomy – It’s the second most common surgery among American women and yet many doctors think there are less invasive ways to deal with some problems that lead to hysterectomies.
- Unresolved cardiac problems – Studies show that women who present with the same risk factors as men do not get the same treatment. The symptoms of cardiovascular disease in women are usually different and the diagnostic procedures to detect problems differ for women than men. All of this means that women’s heart problems often go undetected and untreated. So women must be persistent and seek a second opinion –preferably with a specialist in women’s heart disease. Read more about women and heart disease here.
- Breast and Gynecological Cancers – As treatment options vary and some are controversial, women should always seek a second opinion from a specialist in these cancers.
- Autoimmune diseases – Women are more likely to have lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other auto immune diseases that are difficult to diagnose. Seeing a specialist can help confirm the diagnosis and provide information about the latest treatment options.
Getting a Referral
Once you decide you need a second opinion, there are two schools of thought on whether this referral should or should not be provided by the original physician. Some suggest that you look outside of your current doctor’s referral circle if you want a truly objective viewpoint. Here are a few options to consider:
- Ask your current doctor for the name of a specialist.
- Contact your insurance company for a specialist in your network.
- Contact local medical societies and academic medical centers.
- Check to see that the consulting doctor is certified by the American Board of Medical Specialties.
- Some hospitals, like the Cleveland Clinic, now provide online consultations. These are only appropriate when an opinion can be made based on objective criteria such as an imaging study, stress test, or pathology results.
Meeting with Another Doctor
Before you meet with a second doctor, you’ll need to ask your first doctor for copies of your medical records, original x-rays, lab and test results so you can take them with you. While you’re making the request, ask for a set of copies for your own records. If you are dealing with a serious illness, you will want this information for your own knowledge and understanding.
When you meet with the second doctor, ask them if they agree with the first diagnosis and treatment plan. You may also want to ask more specific questions such as:
- Is this the latest form of treatment? Are other types of treatment available?
- Do I really need this treatment? What is the best timing for this treatment?
- What are the pros and cons of this treatment?
Making a Decision
What if there is a conflicting opinion? Many times the first opinion confirms the first, but when there is a conflict, you may need to seek a third opinion. You can also ask the first two doctors to explain their decisions in greater detail.
In the end, you are in charge of your care. While second opinions may seem costly and time-consuming, getting all the information you need to feel comfortable with your decision is critical.
The Daily Beast