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When and How to Get a Second Opinion
Jack, a 50-year-old office worker, discovered a small lump on the side of his neck. He scheduled a visit with his primary care doctor, who examined the lump and ordered tests. When the tests results were in, Jack's doctor explained that the lump was pre-cancerous. Treatment options were to closely monitor the lump or have it surgically removed.
Explaining the pros and cons of each option, the doctor stated that, in his opinion, the best option would be to remove the lump. After asking his doctor a number of questions, Jack said he would like to take a few days to think about what to do. The doctor agreed and suggested that Jack consider getting a second opinion. In Jack's case, the second opinion confirmed the impression of his primary care doctor.
When Should You Get a Second Opinion?
What if your doctor does not suggest that you seek out a second opinion? How do you determine whether your situation warrants one?
Unless your condition is life threatening and requires emergency care, it is never a bad idea to seek a second opinion. In many cases, seeking a second opinion is not only warranted, but necessary. These circumstances include anytime the following occurs:
- A condition or problem is considered serious
- Surgery is one of the treatment options suggested
- Numerous possible treatment options are available
- After consulting with your doctor, you still have a number of unanswered questions
- You are told by the doctor that a specific type of treatment cannot be used to treat your condition
- You are told by the doctor that nothing or nothing more can be done to treat your condition
- Your condition returns after treatment
- A cause for your symptoms is not found, but the symptoms continue
- You feel that there is something wrong with the diagnosis or suggested treatment for your condition
Is It Too Late?
What if you begin receiving treatment and then decide that you would like to get a second opinion? Is it too late? It is best to seek a second opinion soon after a condition or problem is diagnosed. However, it is never too late, even after treatment—with the exception of surgery—has begun.
Why Should You Bother With a Second Opinion?
Conditions that may require second opinions are usually complicated and poorly understood. If you seek a second opinion, find a doctor who specializes in the condition.
There may be a number of benefits to getting a second opinion, including:
- Having a better understanding of your condition
- Getting your questions answered
- Removing any doubts
- Helping you to weigh the benefits and risks of the recommended treatment options
- Helping you to make an informed, educated decision as to what treatment is best for you
Because medicine is not an exact science and many conditions can mimic the symptoms of other conditions, diagnosis can be difficult. As a result, getting a second opinion can be help make certain that the original diagnosis is correct.
How Do You Get a Referral?
You can ask your doctor for a referral. In most cases, a reputable doctor will welcome this request. But like many patients, you may feel uncomfortable or uncertain about asking your doctor for this type of referral. But, it is actually common for patients to get second opinions, so your doctor will not be surprised or insulted if you bring up this subject. The bottom line is that—if the circumstances warrant a second opinion—be sure you get one.
How Do You Find a Doctor on Your Own?
If you need to find a doctor on your own, you can try:
- Talking to another trusted doctor who may be able to recommend a specialist
- Calling local hospitals, medical centers, or medical schools and asking for a referral to a specialist who works at or in connection with that facility
- Calling your health insurance company for a list of specialists who are covered by your plan
Will You Have to Pay for a Second Opinion?
The cost of a second opinion depends on your health insurance plan and the doctor whom you want to see.
Before scheduling an appointment for a second opinion, check with your insurer to see if they cover second opinions, and if so, what restrictions are in place. Some health plans require a second opinion and will pay for it in full. Others will pay for it if you seek a second opinion from a specialist within their health care or insurance network. If you are in a position where you have to pay out-of-pocket for a second opinion, the cost will vary depending on which specialist you see and whether tests need to be done.
Will More Tests Be Done?
This depends on your condition. In some cases, the doctor will want to conduct an independent exam and may order additional tests. Or, the doctor will be able to use the results that have already been collected to evaluate your condition, verify or disagree with the original diagnosis, and suggest a treatment plan for you.
To minimize wasting time and resources, make arrangements to hand deliver test results and a copy of your medical record to the doctor before your appointment.
Who Do You Get Treatment From?
This depends on you and the type of health insurance you have. If you would like to, you may be able to get treatment from the doctor who gave you a second opinion. Or, the specialist can guide the primary care physician on the treatment.
Agency for Health Care Policy and Research
American Medical Association
Canadian Medical Association
How to get a second opinion. US Office on Women's Health website. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/second-opinion-how-to.pdf. Updated September 10, 2008. Accessed July 31, 2015.
Second opinions. Johns Hopkins Pathology website. Available at: http://pathology.jhu.edu/department/services/secondopinion.cfm. Accessed July 31, 2015.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 07/2015
- Update Date: 11/19/2013