There are a number of different situations when you might want to get a second opinion on your diagnosis or treatment plan. It’s wise to consider getting a second opinion if you’re diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare condition or if your doctor has recommended elective (non-emergency) surgery like joint replacement or a hysterectomy. A recent study at the Mayo Clinic highlights the potential value of seeking a second opinion in these situations. The researchers found that as many as 88% of those who sought a second opinion for a complex medical condition at the Mayo Clinic had a new or refined diagnosis that changed their treatment plan, with 21% of the diagnoses being completely changed by the second opinion. In contrast, only 12% of those patients received confirmation that their diagnosis was correct and complete. That’s why a second opinion can be the front line defense against misdiagnosis, a problem that affects 12 million Americans a year according to the Institute of Medicine.
But even though a second opinion can offer valuable information and may even change your diagnosis or open the door to additional treatment options, fewer people than you might expect seek a second opinion. A Gallup poll found that 49% of the 5,000 survey respondents said they never seek a second opinion when their physician diagnoses a condition, prescribes a new medication or treatment, or recommends surgery.
Why don’t people get a second opinion?
The most common reasons people cite include:
- A feeling of urgency about starting treatment, especially with a serious diagnosis like cancer
- Concern about offending their doctor
- Lack of access or the inability to travel to centers of excellence that can provide second opinions from experts in the field
- Concern that the cost will not be covered by insurance if they seek a second opinion from a physician at a center of excellence outside their insurance network
In actuality, there’s no need to start treatment for most conditions, including most cancers, immediately after you receive a diagnosis. And most doctors welcome a second opinion. If they actively discourage seeking one, that can be a sign that you should consider switching doctors.
How to ask for a second opinion
There are several different ways you can start the conversation about a second opinion with your doctor, including:
- Telling your doctor you want to be sure that you explore all your treatment options, so you’d like to get the opinion of a non-surgical specialist in the case of a recommendation for surgery or of other types of oncologists (medical, radiation, and surgical) if you’re diagnosed with cancer, for example
- Letting your doctor know that you always talk to more than one expert when you need to make an important decision, whether that’s a medical, financial, or personal decision
- Asking your doctor if he or she were diagnosed with your condition, what doctor’s opinion would they seek
- Letting your doctor know that you’d like the opinion of a physician that specializes in treating your condition
- Telling your doctor that a second opinion would give you peace of mind that your diagnosis and treatment plan are the best option for you
If you’d like to get a second opinion, talk to your insurance company to find out what coverage they offer. Many plans include the support of a case manager who can tell you what’s covered and how to go about getting a second opinion. And even if you don’t live near a center of excellence for an expert second opinion, many, including Massachusetts General Hospital, Yale, Cleveland Clinic, and Dana Farber Cancer Institute, offer virtual or remote second opinion programs. A health advisor can also connect you with experts for second opinions.
Even if your second opinion doesn’t change your diagnosis or treatment plan, you can move forward with peace of mind of knowing you’ve gathered the information you need to make an informed decision about your care.