Five situations when second opinions matter most

March 3, 2015 in Second Opinion  •  By Miles Varn
second opinion protects from incorrect diagnosis

A second opinion can be one of the most valuable tools you have to ensure that you’re getting the most accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Misdiagnosis is more common than most people realize. One study found that delayed, missed and incorrect diagnoses occur in 10 to 20 percent of cases. And these errors don’t only happen in complex cases. The most common misdiagnoses occur for fairly common conditions, including pneumonia, heart failure, kidney failure and cancer. With those statistics in mind, when is it most important for you to seek a second opinion?

Do you need a second opinion?

There are five key situations when seeking a second opinion can make a critical difference in your diagnosis or treatment options. While you may feel hesitant to tell your doctor you’re seeking a second opinion, it’s very rare that a physician would discourage you from doing so. The only situation when that might occur is when you need to begin treatment immediately, for example if you have a life-threatening cardiovascular problem or are diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. In most other situations, if your physician tells you that you don’t need to bother with a second opinion, it’s probably wise to find a new doctor.

Here are the five situations when you should always seek a second opinion:

  1. You receive a cancer diagnosis. A study in the BMJ Quality and Safety journal estimated that 28 percent of cancer cases are misdiagnosed. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you should seek a second opinion to confirm the results of your diagnostic pathology tests. The best option is to get the second opinion from a pathology department at a large medical center that has broad experience interpreting tissue samples from patients with the type of cancer with which you’ve been diagnosed. It’s also wise to get a second opinion about the staging of the cancer. This information can affect what treatment options are available to you.
  1. Your doctor recommends surgery. There may be a variety of treatment options that could achieve the result you’re seeking. Because surgery always poses risk, it’s important to get a second opinion to learn if surgery is the most appropriate approach or if there are other treatment paths you could try first, like physical therapy for back pain or active surveillance for slow-growing prostate cancer.
  1. The diagnosis or course of treatment is not clear. There are many diseases that share similar symptoms but require different treatments, for example, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Those similarities can make it more difficult for physicians to make a definitive diagnosis. If your diagnosis is not clear, it’s helpful to get the insights of a second or even third physician to confirm or rule out a diagnosis. It’s also common that there are several treatment approaches that may be effective for a single disease or condition. Getting a second opinion can help you decide which treatment approach is appropriate for your particular situation.
  1. Your current treatment is not working. If you’ve completed a round of treatment and your condition has not improved or has gotten worse, it’s worth getting a second opinion from another physician to find out if there are other treatment options that you could consider. If, for example, you’ve chosen physical therapy and anti-inflammatory medication to treat knee pain, but your mobility has become noticeably more limited and your pain has increased, it’s time to explore other treatment options.
  1. You’ve been diagnosed with a rare disease or condition. Not all physicians possess the same level of expertise and experience, especially when it comes to rare diseases and conditions. If you’ve been diagnosed with this type of health problem, you should arrange a second opinion with a physician who specializes in treating your condition. These specialists are more likely to be up-to-date on the most recent science and treatment options and can direct you to appropriate clinical trials if that’s a treatment path you would like to explore.

To learn more about how a second opinion can change your diagnosis or treatment options, talk with a health advisor.