A board marked "Second Opinion"

Medical second opinions

Should you get one?

The practice of getting a second opinion is common. People ask for a second opinion about many different types of things: buying cars and clothes, trying new recipes or workout plans, and virtually everything else.

However, medical second opinions tend to be somewhat of a taboo topic, even though the practice of getting a second opinion has been around for decades. Patients, employers and insurance plan providers have sought second opinions in a variety of situations, and especially when someone is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, surgery or other invasive medical treatments are suggested by doctors.

But for some reason, people are often uneasy about asking for a medical second opinion. Some see it as questioning the medical expertise and authority of a health care professional, while others fear they may be punished in some way if they question their doctor’s diagnosis.

Then there are the questions of whether medical second opinions save money or improve the quality of care. Is a second opinion necessary? If so, under what circumstances? How often are diagnoses or treatments changed after talking to another doctor?

These questions are debated on a regular basis, and the view on the matter often varies based on a person’s position (patient, doctor or insurer).

“The concept of second opinions had fallen out of favor for a period, in part because of a tendency for the second opinions to confirm the original diagnosis and add unnecessary complexity,” says Mike Thompson, a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

When to ask for a medical second opinion

In general, you probably don’t need to seek the advice of another doctor for minor issues. If you are having symptoms that are uncommon, terminal, chronic or having a negative impact on your quality of life, then exploring your options is a good approach.

Being faced with surgery or being diagnosed with a heart issue, diabetes or cancer, or having an unexplained medical issue are all situations in which a second opinion can help improve quality of life, provide treatment options or avoid a mistaken diagnosis.

Benefits of getting a medical second opinion

If you are faced with an important decision about your health, collecting multiple opinions and talking to a number of health care providers is one of the most effective ways to ensure you choose the correct treatment.

Some of the benefits of obtaining medical advice from multiple sources include:

  • Confirmation of the original diagnosis
  • Possible prevention of unnecessary surgery or invasive treatment
  • Improved understanding of a diagnosis or treatment schedule
  • Peace of mind
  • The chance to explore alternative medical treatment options
  • Possibility of discovering new methods to treat chronic conditions
  • Saving money on medical care over the long term

Studies prove the merits of medical second opinions

A couple of recent studies examined the role of getting multiple medical opinions and the impact they have on treatment changes and getting a different diagnosis.

As outlined by the Center for Advancing Health, here is what these studies found:

In a University of Michigan study of breast cancer patients, more than half of them changed their treatment after getting a second opinion on their diagnosis from a ‘tumor board’ of oncologists, surgeons and radiation experts. In a Johns Hopkins study of 6,000 cancer patients, researchers found that one to two of every 100 patients who sought a second opinion after a tumor biopsy had received a wrong diagnosis.

These studies reaffirm the benefits of seeking an alternative opinion if you’re diagnosed with a serious medical condition.

Getting a confidential second opinion

If you want a second opinion for an existing medical condition, diagnosis or treatment, you have many options available to you. If you are covered by a group health insurance plan, ask your benefits administrator if your plan has a second opinion service as a covered benefit. Most leading health insurance companies offer this type of service.