You’ve just left your doctor’s office, and the news isn’t great. Or it’s not so bad, but you’re not sure. You feel unsettled, confused — maybe even like you disagree with the doctor.
But she’s a doctor. She knows what she’s talking about.
While you could take a deep breath and convince yourself to accept the doctor’s advice at face value, you could also think about getting a second opinion.
Second opinions aren’t inherently better than the first one. But when it comes to your medical care and treatment, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can to take care of yourself. And sometimes, that means talking to another doctor (or several) to pinpoint a diagnosis or treatment plan.
A second opinion can be the difference between settling and finding a true solution to your troubles.
Disclaimer: the following is intended for information only and should not be considered as medical advice. Please check in with your provider(s) for specific medical advice if you have questions or concerns about your health.
First, know that getting a second opinion is normal.
Patients often hesitate to get a second opinion. They worry that it’ll upset their regular doctor. Fortunately, that’s not usually how it goes.
Most doctors actually consider second opinions fairly standard. Some may even suggest it!
More often, it’s patients rather than doctors who find second opinions awkward. Maybe that’s why only about 30% of patients think about seeing what another doctor has to say.
You can be part of reversing that trend.
When you get an uncertain diagnosis, consider asking another doctor to look over your test results. If you’re unsure about your treatment plan, you can check what a different specialist would do.
And consider your medical condition.
Second opinions are normal and can be helpful, but not every situation warrants one. While you can certainly seek another opinion for anything, some conditions naturally lend themselves to advice from another doctor. Others don’t.
Here are a few situations where getting a second opinion might be particularly helpful:
This might come as a surprise, but just because a surgeon says you need surgery doesn’t necessarily mean you do — not always, anyway.
But weighing the risks and benefits can be tricky. Doctors aren’t robots, and the human element means that two surgeons may come to different conclusions.
Sometimes, there may be less invasive options that could be just as effective. Some doctors lean toward surgical interventions. Others like to try alternative treatments first.
Before going under the knife, it can be a good idea to see what another doctor has to say about the benefits vs. the risks.
The opposite is true, too.
Your doctor may suggest a wait-and-see approach, but you could check whether another provider recommends having surgery right away.
Getting a second opinion probably won’t change a cancer diagnosis. It’s a condition that can be straightforward to diagnose given the testing involved.
That said, a cancer diagnosis itself isn’t always set in stone. One study looked into the value of having experts at a cancer center review patients’ files. The process led to a change in diagnosis 43% of the time.
Check with another doctor if your situation is complex or you have doubts about the results of your testing. Rare cancers, for example, might need another doctor’s review.
Even if you accept the diagnosis, it doesn’t hurt to get another doctor’s opinion on treatment options if you’re unsure about how to proceed. Cancer treatment may not have a clear path, so getting more advice at the outset could help you set the best course for you.
Perhaps you know that something is wrong with your body, but your doctor can’t figure out what it is. The symptoms are hard to pinpoint. The test results come back clear. Still, you know there’s a problem.
Or, maybe you have a diagnosis, but the treatment isn’t making a difference.
You may even have been misdiagnosed.
Circumstances like these aren’t unusual. Many medical conditions have overlapping symptoms. And rare diseases don’t always show up on tests, especially if a doctor isn’t looking for them. Plus, not everyone responds to the same treatment plans.
In such cases, a second opinion — or third, or fourth — may lead to the answers you need.
Take other factors into account, too.
Your motivation for getting a second opinion may go beyond the basic facts about your case. You might have more personal reasons as well.
Lack of Trust
Not every doctor-patient combo is the right one. You and your provider may not mesh well.
Of course, excellent medical care is about more than being good buddies with your doctor. You don’t have to be pals with your provider.
But if you’re signing up for the long haul — for example, undergoing cancer treatment — then you’re going to be seeing your doctor a lot. In that case, think about choosing a team of doctors you’re comfortable with.
More than that, though, you have to be able to trust your medical team.
Maybe you’re sensing red flags about your doctor’s diagnosis or treatment plan. If so, listen to your intuition and ask for a second opinion. Your provider choice might be limited based on insurance or even the condition you have. But where possible, build a team of doctors you can trust.
If you’re a parent, then your children’s health is even more important to you than your own. When it comes to their care, you want to make sure that you’re getting the best. Sometimes, that means asking for a second opinion.
For instance, your child may be exhibiting symptoms that trouble you. You mention them to the pediatrician, who suggests seeing if things work themselves out over the next few months. If you’re not comfortable with the wait-and-see approach, it may be time to visit a specialist instead.
Also, as with adults, diagnoses for kids aren’t always clear. In fact, kids’ symptoms can be even trickier, since little ones can’t always explain what’s wrong exactly. This can lead to misdiagnosis or the wrong treatment plan, along with plenty of stress for everyone involved.
When the symptoms are vague or the treatment plan isn’t helping, consider seeing what another doctor has to say.
Then take action — the right way.
Once you’ve decided to seek a second opinion, here’s how to do it.
#1) Act quickly.
The sooner you get a second opinion, the better. When possible, it’s best to do so before starting treatment.
If you think that you might want to consult another doctor, don’t drag your feet. Set up another appointment right away. Some doctors have long waiting lists, especially when it comes to specialists. You can always cancel the appointment if you change your mind.
#2) Ask for referrals.
Remember, doctors aren’t usually put out by second opinions. If you’re comfortable with it, ask your original doctor for guidance on where to go for another opinion.
If not, ask family and friends if they have any advice. You could also make some calls to see what specialists are out there. Reaching out to your insurance company or a nearby hospital might point you in the right direction as well.
Check online to learn more about providers’ board certifications and other credentials.
#3) Consult your insurance.
Your health insurance company might balk at paying for the same consultations twice. On the other hand, some insurers encourage second opinions.
Yours might even have a system set up for this kind of thing, with a team of doctors standing by to offer second opinions for their enrollees. Check with your insurance company to see if there’s something like this or a referral system in place. It might save you a few steps.
Either way, it’s smart to know ahead of time what you’ll be expected to pay for getting another doctor’s advice.
#4) Request your records.
The more information you can give the new doctor, the better. Ask your current doctor to send your medical records to the new office. Another option would be to request your records so that you can bring them to the first appointment.
#5) Evaluate the information.
The specialist may come to a similar conclusion as the first doctor, or you might be presented with an entirely different approach to treatment. Either way, it will then be up to you to decide what to do with the information.
You could stick with the new doctor or go back to your original healthcare provider. The first doctor might even be willing to take suggestions from the second opinion or work with him to form a treatment plan.
If you’re still not satisfied, you can start the process all over. Sometimes, you may need advice from multiple doctors to find a solution. The path to wellbeing isn’t always clear.
Getting a second opinion can feel awkward or uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, your health is what matters most. Advocate for yourself, especially when it comes to your healthcare. Doctors generally want to help their patients — even if that means sending them somewhere else for advice.