A second opinion can be a powerful tool. It can help lower your risk of experiencing a medical error or misdiagnosis, allow you to explore all treatment options and their benefits and risks, connect you with physicians who have experience and success treating people with your diagnosis, and provide peace of that mind that your diagnosis and treatment plan are appropriate.
Research from the Mayo Clinic highlights the value of second opinions. The researchers found that approximately 88 percent of people who sought a second opinion for a complex medical condition at the Mayo Clinic received a new or refined diagnosis that changed their treatment plan. Within that group of patients, 21 percent of the diagnoses were completely changed by the second opinion. In contrast, only 12 percent of patients included in the study received confirmation that their diagnosis was correct and complete.
Despite the potential value a second opinion could yield, many people never even consider seeking one. Some people worry about delaying treatment, especially when they’ve been diagnosed with a condition like cancer. In most cases, however, there is no need to start treatment immediately after diagnosis. Others are concerned that seeking a second opinion will offend their physician. In fact, most healthcare providers welcome a second opinion. If your doctor actively discourages you from seeking one, that can be an indication that you should consider finding a new physician.
When should you seek a second opinion?
While you can seek a second opinion for any condition, there are five situations when it can be especially valuable:
1. Your physician cannot provide a definitive diagnosis. Many diseases and conditions share similar symptoms. In some cases, that can make it difficult for your physician to diagnose your condition with certainty. Seeking a second opinion can help you tap the expertise of other specialists who may recommend additional testing to narrow down potential diagnoses.
2. You are diagnosed with a complex or rare health problem. Rare diseases affect fewer than 200,000 Americans, which means very few physicians, including specialists, are familiar with the symptoms. That can lead to your condition being misdiagnosed or the inability to reach a diagnosis. Complex health problems, such as advanced cancer or the need for an organ transplant, can also be difficult for many physicians to manage. These conditions require physicians who have extensive experience treating the condition, as well as a coordinated team approach to care, since the treatment team may need to include specialists from several disciplines.
3. Your physician recommends surgery. Even if you do choose to undergo the operation in the end, when you receive a recommendation for surgery, it’s wise to seek a second opinion. In most cases, surgery should not be the first treatment you try. Seeking a second opinion can provide you with other treatment options to consider, such a physical therapy, lifestyle changes, including weight loss or changes to your diet, or medications.
4. You are diagnosed with cancer. A second opinion for people diagnosed with cancer may include a review of the pathology, which is part of the determination of the stage of cancer and can affect your treatment recommendations and lower your risk of being over or undertreated. Having another oncologist review your case may also lead to other treatment options or access to clinical trials. In addition, if your first opinion is from a physician at your community hospital, a second opinion from a specialist at an academic medical center may provide access to physicians who have more experience treating your condition, as well as access to cutting-edge treatments and technologies.
5. You and your physician are not a good fit. Your physician can be technically experienced and skilled, but if you are uncomfortable talking with her or him or feel that your concerns and questions are not being taken seriously, getting a second opinion may help you connect with a physician with similar experience but whose temperament and communication style are more in sync with yours. Honest, open communication is an essential part of your relationship with your physician, so you need someone you trust, who is willing to take time to answer questions and educate you about your condition and your treatment options.
Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.
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