Second opinions: Five situations when you should get one

October 27, 2020 in Second Opinion  •  By Miles Varn, MD
second opinions

Second opinions can help lower your risk of experiencing a medical error or misdiagnosis, allow you to learn about all treatment options and their benefits and risks, connect you with physicians who have experience and success treating people with your condition, and provide you with peace of that mind that your diagnosis and treatment plan are appropriate.

A second opinion can also make a significant difference in your treatment, which can impact your outcome. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic discovered that approximately 88% of people who sought second opinions for a complex medical condition at the Mayo Clinic received a new or refined diagnosis that changed their treatment plan. Within that group, 21% of the diagnoses were completely changed by the second opinions. Only 12% of patients in the study received confirmation that their diagnosis was correct and complete.

So, why don’t more people seek second opinions? Some worry about delaying treatment, especially when they’ve been diagnosed with a serious condition like cancer. In most cases, however, there is no need to start treatment immediately after your diagnosis. Others worry that seeking a second opinion will offend their doctor. In fact, most healthcare providers welcome a second opinion. If your doctor actively discourages you from seeking one, that can be a sign that you should think about finding a new one.

When should you get a second opinion?

While you can seek a second opinion for any condition, there are five situations when it can be especially helpful:

  • Your doctor can’t give you a definitive diagnosis. Many diseases and conditions share similar symptoms. That can make it difficult for your doctor 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 or who may have specialized experience that helps them make a diagnosis.
  • You’re 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 doctors to manage effectively. 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.
  • Your doctor recommends surgery. Even if you choose to have the operation in the end, when you receive a recommendation for surgery, it’s wise to seek a second opinion. In most cases, surgery shouldn’t be the first treatment you try. Seeking a second opinion can provide you with other options to consider trying first, such a physical therapy, lifestyle changes including weight loss or changes to your diet, or medications.
  • You’re diagnosed with cancer. A second opinion for people diagnosed with cancer may include a review of the pathology, which is part of how the stage of cancer is determined and can affect your treatment recommendations. It can also lower your risk of being over or under treated. 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 doctor at your community hospital, an in-person or virtual second opinion from a specialist at an academic medical center may give you access to doctors who have more experience treating your condition, as well as access to cutting-edge treatments and technologies.
  • You and your doctor aren’t a good fit. Your doctor can be technically experienced and skilled, but if you’re uncomfortable talking with her or him or feel that your concerns and questions aren’t being taken seriously, getting a second opinion may help you connect with a doctor with a similar level of expertise whose temperament and communication style are more in sync with yours. Honest, open communication is an essential part of your relationship with your doctor 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.
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