Medicine is not an absolute science. Because of that, there is often some variation in what a doctor might say when you go in with a problem. The diagnosis and treatment plan might be different from physician to physician and patient to patient. And that’s one example where second opinions come into play.
A second opinion is when you take what one doctor tells you and run it by a different physician to confirm that it’s the best course of action. But when do you truly need one? I actually have a very simple answer to that question: If you think you need a second opinion, get one. If anything your doctor says is confusing or feels off to you, you should talk to a different doctor.
Whenever you get a diagnosis, it’s important that you feel like your doctor is making his or her decision based on your personal situation, not just because it’s what is always done for the average patient. That’s why you should ask three main questions: What is my issue, what do I need to do and why is it important for me to do this? Also consider asking, is there anything else this can be? If you can understand the answers to those questions, you probably don’t need a second opinion. But if there is something about any of those answers you don’t understand or the doctor can’t clarify, see a different doctor.
This is especially important whenever your doctor recommends a test or treatment that could have negative side effects—maybe it’s a test where you’d be put under anesthesia or an invasive biopsy. In those situations, make sure you are confident that it’s necessary and that you know why it’s being recommended. Another time you will likely want a second opinion is if your condition is not improving despite your doctors best efforts or if you are diagnosed with a rare or terminal disease. For rare conditions or cancer, ask to be referred to a hospital or medical center where a multidisciplinary panel reviews your case. This is a way to get several expert second opinions all at once.
Your primary care physician should refer you to a specialist if their best efforts fail to resolve your problem. You should never be afraid to mention to your doctor that you want a second opinion. Say something like: “Just to be sure of that there aren’t any other approaches, do you know of any experts in the area who have a lot of experience in this condition who can possibly review this with me?” You’ll want to get copies of any tests done so you don’t need to repeat procedures. And, as always, give your insurance company a call to make sure they’ll cover the second doctor’s visit before you go.
For more ways to improve your comfort level with your doctor, check out these blogs from this site as well as A Healthier Michigan:
- The One Thing That Can Improve Your Relationship With Your Doctor
- Too Embarrassed to Talk to Your Doctor? 5 Tips to Open the Dialogue
- Become Your Doctor’s Favorite Patient
About the author: Dr. S. George Kipa is the Deputy Chief Medical Officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan where he serves as primary backup to the Chief Medical Officer. He also serves as BCBSM Physician Ombudsman, participates in PPO network management and is an enthusiastic advocate of the BCBSM Value Partnership programs.
Photo credit: Pan American Health Organization