If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious, rare, or complex health condition or your doctor has recommended surgery as a treatment option, your next step should be to get a second opinion on both your diagnosis and treatment options. There are several reasons to seek a second opinion. First, it’s important to understand all the treatments that are appropriate for your condition. A second opinion can also lower your risk of being misdiagnosed, experiencing a medical error or receiving inappropriate treatment.
How to seek a second opinion
In most cases, you don’t need a referral to seek a second opinion, but it’s wise to check with your health insurer so you don’t end up with bills for services that aren’t covered under your plan or that require a referral or preauthorization. When choosing a physician for your second opinion, it can be helpful to choose a specialist who is not in the same practice as the physician who provided the original diagnosis because physician partners often share similar approaches to treatment. You also want a physician who has expertise and a significant amount of experience treating the specific condition you’ve been diagnosed with.
If you live in a major metropolitan area, you could seek an in-person second opinion at a medical center of excellence. But if you don’t live near one of these centers, travel is difficult because of your condition or you’re concerned about travel and in-person appointments during the pandemic, a virtual second opinion can be a good option.
Getting the most out of your virtual second opinion
Taking the time to proactively prepare for your virtual second opinion can help you gather all the information needed to make an informed decision about your treatment. These four steps are a good starting point:
1. Collect, review and share your medical records. You will need to provide information to the physician before the second opinion appointment, so request that your current physician share your records, notes and the results of any diagnostic tests and procedures with that physician as soon as possible, and complete any paperwork required for the release of your information.
Ensure that you share information from all the physicians who you’re receiving care from. For example, your primary care physician can provide an overall view of your health, management of any chronic conditions and family history; your cardiologist can provide information on your treatment for heart disease; and your oncologist can provide information about treatments you’ve undergone in the past for cancer. Request a copy of the records for yourself as well so you can review them to make sure the information is accurate and current.
2. Write a list of questions you’d like to ask. Before your second opinion, ask the physician whether you’ll need to submit any questions before the appointment and if there is a limit on the number of questions you can ask. Then put together your list. Your questions could include:
- Are there additional tests I should undergo that could confirm or change my diagnosis?
- What other treatment options are appropriate for my condition, and what are their risks and benefits compared to the current recommendation?
- How quickly do I need to decide which treatment to pursue?
- Are there risks to not starting treatment right away?
- What is my overall prognosis?
- Am I eligible for a clinical trial, and how would participation affect my ability to pursue other treatments?
3. Have a family member, friend or advocate with you during your appointment. Being diagnosed with a serious health condition is stressful, and that stress can make informed decision making more challenging. Some studies have found that about 80% of what physicians say to their patients is forgotten immediately after the appointment. To ensure you’re getting questions answered and gathering the information you need, have a support person with you during your appointment to take notes. Before the appointment, ask if you may record your second opinion or if the doctor will provide you with a written version of what you discuss so that you can refer back to it and share it with your first doctor.
4. Make sure you understand what the physician tells you. You or your support person should ask for clarification in layman’s terms if the physician uses unfamiliar medical terminology or discusses complex treatment regimens that you don’t understand. You may also want to ask the physician if there are any reliable, evidence-based resources you can consult to learn more about your condition and treatment options.
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