If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare medical condition or your physician has told you that you need surgery, the next step you take should be to seek a second opinion. What difference can a second opinion make? A very significant one in many cases.
Reason #1: To protect yourself against misdiagnosis
There are a number of reasons you might consider seeking a second opinion. Perhaps you’re not comfortable with the doctor’s level of experience treating your problem. Maybe you don’t feel that your physician is listening to your questions and concerns or providing enough information for you to make an informed decision.
One of the most important reasons to seek a second opinion is to protect yourself from misdiagnosis. Researchers have found that the rates of misdiagnosis and mistreatment are higher than you might suspect. A study published last year in the healthcare journal BMJ Quality & Safety found that approximately 12 million adults are misdiagnosed every year in the U.S. Half of those misdiagnoses had the potential to cause serious harm to the patient.
A study of objective data we’ve collected from more than 1,000 of our own members over a three-year period also highlights the value of second medical opinions. Almost 77 percent of the second opinions we helped members obtain after an initial diagnosis resulted in a change of diagnosis, treatment, and/or treating physician. Of those 1,000 members, 32 had a change of diagnosis, 209 changed treatment plans, and 18 people whose physicians had recommended surgery turned out not to need surgery.
Reason #2: Your diagnosis is not definitive
Diagnosis is a complicated process. Many diseases share symptoms, which can make it very difficult for a physician to arrive at a definitive diagnosis. For example, in the early stages, it can be difficult to determine whether someone has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia for which the potential medications may be very different. Another condition that can be difficult to diagnose is multiple sclerosis. It shares symptoms with a range of diseases, from B-12 deficiency to Lyme disease and myasthenia gravis.
Here’s another complex situation where a second opinion changed the diagnosis and achieved a better outcome. The mother-in-law of one of our members had been living with mild Parkinson’s disease for a number of years when she began to stumble, slur her words, and lose her memory. Her physician told the family it was a worsening of the Parkinson’s disease and there was nothing they could do to help. However, when we arranged a second opinion with a neurologist and an MRI, they discovered that, in fact, excess fluid on her brain was causing the symptoms. After the fluid was removed, the symptoms disappeared.
Reason #3: There’s more than one “right” treatment
For many conditions, there are several appropriate treatment options that are supported by the clinical literature. For certain patients, the treatment options for prostate cancer can include active surveillance, surgery, or radiation. Breast cancer patients may have a choice between lumpectomy and mastectomy. People with chronic back pain may have a choice of physical therapy, lifestyle modifications like losing weight, and medication to reduce pain or surgery. A second opinion can help you decide which treatment is most appropriate for your particular situation.
It’s important to make sure that any second (or third) opinion you seek is from a physician who has broad experience and expertise treating the condition that you’ve been diagnosed with. A personal health advisor can connect you with top specialists or arrange a virtual consultation to help you make your treatment decision.