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When Is It Smart to Get a Second Opinion?

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The old saying, “Two heads are better than one,” makes good sense, whether you’re talking about solving a crossword puzzle or choosing the best preschool for your child. And the same can certainly be true when you’re trying to decide on a medical issue or treatment.

To make a diagnosis, doctors rely on a complex collection of tests, scans, observations, and patient reports. Frequently the indications are very clear. But nearly as often, there can be multiple interpretations. It’s in this gray area that a second opinion can help you and your doctor find more clarity. Second opinions are commonplace in the medical community, and a good doctor will understand and work with you when you decide you need one.

Make It Worth Your While

If you’re taking the additional time and expense to get a second opinion, you’ll want to be sure it’s worth the trouble. Dr. Groopman recommends seeking a second opinion when you have “a very serious or life-threatening disease,” especially when any of the following are true:

  • The treatment recommended is risky or toxic
  • The diagnosis is not clear, or the treatment is experimental or not FDA-approved
  • The drug prescribed is still in the trial stage
  • The procedure or approach is experimental or uses experimental instruments or devices

If you’re concerned that your doctor’s initial opinion may skew the second one, you can ask for copies of any tests you’ve had, and send those directly to the consulting physician, rather than having everything forwarded. According to Dr. Leana Wen, author of When Doctor’s Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, this avoids duplicate tests, while ensuring that the second opinion comes from fresh eyes. “The doctor shouldn’t have your previous doctor’s notes,” Wen says, “which could sway his or her opinion.”

One, Two…What Next?

If the second opinion is the same as the first, both you and your doctors will have reasonable confirmation that you’re all on the right path.

If the two opinions are different, it’s trickier. Talk with all the doctors involved to see if you can find some clarity. And if you’re not convinced, you can always seek more opinions. Whether you think the diagnosis is incorrect, or you just need a little extra reassurance, it’s up to you, the patient, to decide.

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