Seeking A Second Medical Opinion—Will It Make A Difference?

When you feel sick, you go to the doctor for their professional expertise and advice—but what happens if you want a second opinion?

When you go to the doctor’s office, you trust that your primary care provider has the medical experience and training to figure out why you feel unwell. With the average medical doctor taking upwards of eight years to complete medical school, residency placements, and potential fellowship training to practice medicine, your doctor is very well-educated in their particular field of study.

However, they are only human and may occasionally make mistakes.

As modern medicine continues to create more accurate and affordable diagnostics tests and tools, patients are much more likely to receive a correct diagnosis for their symptoms than ever. That said, mistakes and inaccuracies are still a massive issue in healthcare. Sometimes it results in severe long-term health complications for patients who do not receive the correct treatment after being misdiagnosed. In some cases, patients may also be overly investigated.

Health is an incredibly complex and personal concept, impacted by numerous factors like your environment, genetics, lifestyle, and more. There is no “one way” to be healthy—the same as there is no “one size fits all” answer as to why you are experiencing your specific disease symptoms.

As the primary person investigating these factors to identify the actual cause of your illness, your doctor is likely an incredibly well-educated and reliable resource. Still, they are only one person with one perspective on the issue.

Therefore, it is not uncommon for patients to want a second medical opinion on their condition—though it can sometimes feel rude and awkward to ask. But is getting a second medical opinion worth the potential stress and costs it can bring with it?

What is a second opinion?

Before we jump into the benefits and considerations of seeking a second medical opinion, we first need to understand what a second opinion is and why they are often sought after.

Getting a second medical opinion refers to scheduling another appointment with a different medical professional to ask for their advice on your medical condition.¹ This process occurs after receiving a new diagnosis, after a recommendation for a new medication or surgical procedure, or at any point in your medical care.

The reasons you may want a second opinion vary significantly from situation to situation. If you wish to speak to another medical professional to discuss treatment options, gain a better understanding of surgical procedures, or because your current treatment plan isn’t working for you, there is no invalid reason for wanting to get a second opinion for your care. That can include questioning a new diagnosis.²

Incorrect medical diagnoses are incredibly common

If you or someone you love receives a new medical diagnosis, it can often be hard to believe it is real. Because of this, it can be tempting to ask for additional clarification or a second opinion; in some cases, going through this process may give more helpful answers and information about your health.

While almost all medical professionals are not intentionally trying to misdiagnose their patients, that does not mean that every doctor is 100% correct every time they run diagnostic tests to determine what is wrong. With over 7,000 identified rare diseases, matching each patient’s unique presenting symptoms with an accurate diagnosis is often daunting.³

There have also been issues recorded on a slew of personal health and healthcare system mishaps. Some of the most staggering statistics about patient misdiagnosis include the following:

  • According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, it is estimated that every American will experience a misdiagnosis or a diagnostic error during their lifetime.⁴ Most errors can be corrected with minimal to no long-term consequences. For others, however, these errors can cause permanent damage. Sometimes, they can even be fatal.

  • On average, 12 million Americans (1 in every 20 American adults) are affected by a medical misdiagnosis every year.⁵ While it is tough to prove, it is estimated that these large numbers of misdiagnoses cause more harm to patients than all other medical errors (like surgical and medication errors) combined.⁵

  • It is estimated that between 40,000 and 80,000 people die due to complications from a misdiagnosis every year.⁶ Additionally, it is believed that an equal or larger number of patients develop severe and life-altering complications every year as a result of being misdiagnosed by their medical team.⁶

  • According to the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine, upwards of $100 billion is wasted yearly treating the complications of inaccurate medical diagnoses.⁷ The massive debt comes from a laundry list of factors, including unnecessary expensive diagnostic tests, advanced medical care for patients who experience complications from a misdiagnosis, and legal malpractice claims.⁷

The value (and potential consequences) of getting a second opinion

So, getting a second opinion may be a valuable tool in reducing your risk of experiencing a medical misdiagnosis, but it can be hard to know if (and when) it is worth going down that path.

In a perfect world, every time you go to your primary care provider, you will receive an accurate diagnosis of your symptoms while also getting a thorough explanation of the treatment plan you will undertake. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

From differences in medical opinions to the short amount of time that a physician may be allotted to work with each patient, there are many reasons why you may not get everything you are looking for and need from your doctor’s visit.

Because of this, seeking a second medical opinion can be helpful in situations where you are not receiving the care you want—or you want to confirm the validity of a new diagnosis. Examples of some of the most commonly reported benefits of seeking a second medical opinion include the following:⁸

  • Having another health professional confirm (or invalidate) your current diagnosis and treatment plan

  • Getting more information (either new or better explained) about your diagnosis 

  • Suggesting different or additional treatment options to add to your current plan

  • Recommending alternative options for treatment better matched to your lifestyle and care needs

  • Minimizing your risk of experiencing life-altering consciences of a misdiagnosis

Additionally, getting a second opinion that validates your current diagnosis can help reduce any anxiety or stress about taking the next treatment steps, especially if you have been recommended invasive surgery as part of your care plan.

But, like anything else, unfortunately, there are also potential consequences to seeking a second medical opinion, such as:

Delayed referral time

Sometimes, getting a second opinion about a new diagnosis can require a doctor’s referral. If this is the case, you may experience a delay in starting your treatment plan, which may result in health consequences over time.

Additional travel and care expenses

Depending on where you live, getting a second medical opinion can incur additional costs. Whether you have to cover the cost of the appointment or are responsible for taking off work to travel to meet a specialist, there are many ways that a second opinion can add additional financial burden to your treatment.

Choosing between treatment options

Knowing which path to pursue can be difficult if you receive a second opinion that recommends a different treatment plan from the first option you were given. Conflicting views can result in increased confusion in your care.

Experiencing a re-diagnosis

For those who have received a more severe or terminal diagnosis, getting a second opinion that confirms it can be very upsetting. 

Because every person’s medical journey is unique to their experiences, weighing the pros and cons of getting a second opinion for your specific situation is one of the best ways to determine if it is the right course of action for your needs.

When a second opinion might be worth exploring

As we can see, seeking a second medical opinion is not always a clear and easy choice. Depending on various personal, financial, and emotional factors, getting a second opinion does not always make sense for every patient. 

So, while the final decision to talk to a second medical practitioner is up to you and your family and support network, here are a few situations where getting a second opinion may be worth the additional hassle and stress it can cause:

  • You have been diagnosed with a rare disease

  • You live with multiple medical comorbidities

  • Your proposed treatment plan involves invasive surgery or experimental drugs

  • You have been diagnosed with a terminal or life-threatening health condition

  • Your health insurance requires a second opinion for coverage

  • Your doctor is not a specialist in your specific diagnosis

  • You feel like you cannot talk to your current provider about your concerns

  • Your doctor is dismissing your symptoms and will not treat/diagnose you

  • You have multiple treatment options available and do not know which to pursue

  • You are not responding to your current treatment plan

  • Just because you want to; peace of mind is a valid reason for a second opinion!

How to get a second opinion

If you have concluded that you are interested in getting a second opinion, figuring out how to go about it can be more complicated than it should be.

Depending on your relationship with your primary care provider, getting a second opinion can be as simple as asking for a referral to another specialist. Your provider should not take offense to you asking for a second opinion; they should be on your team and support your decision to get additional information and advice for your care.

If you are pursuing a second opinion in this way, always double-check that your health insurance will cover the referral appointment to reduce the risk of significant out-of-pocket expenses.

Suppose you do not have a primary care provider (or do not have a good relationship with your current physician). In that case, there are still ways to get a second opinion without a referral, including:

  • Reach out to your insurance provider to recommend a specialist

  • Visit a local clinic or hospital for a recommendation

  • Search for a local medical association for a specialist near you

For those taking this route for a second opinion, we highly suggest printing important medical documents (diagnostics results, past surgical reports, and a list of your medications) to share with the new medical professional you are seeing. 

Because you are not getting a referral from your primary care provider, you will be responsible for communicating your medical information with the new physician. Being organized and up to date with your health information helps make this interaction as beneficial as possible.

You should still trust (and respect) your medical team

With all of this information about high misdiagnosis and medical error rates, it can be tempting to lose faith in the capabilities of the healthcare system. While this reaction is not uncommon, it is essential to remember that your medical providers are human, just like you—and in almost every case, they are doing everything they can to help you.

While we still have a long way to go when getting more accurate medical diagnoses for patients in need, you should still reach out to your primary care provider when you need medical advice. You should also strive to become more involved in your medical care, including asking your doctor questions about your health conditions and treatment plans or asking for a second opinion if you want additional support and verification.

The lowdown

If you are seeing a medical provider who is on the same page as you, asking for a second opinion should not insult or offend them. Instead, they should be supportive of your decision. If this is different from your experience with your current provider, consider a change to ensure that you are getting the best possible care.

You are in control of your medical care. Whether you are confused by a new diagnosis or simply want to speak to another specialist to hear their thoughts about your current treatment plan, that is something you should pursue.

As long as you and your medical team remain respectful while getting a second opinion, they can be one of the most helpful and beneficial tools to ensure that you get the correct diagnosis and care for your needs.

The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship between a patient/site visitor and their existing health care professional(s).

Have feedback? Send an email to content@healthmatch.io.

Sources:
  1. [Second medical opinions] (2011)

  2. Evaluation of outcomes from a national patient-initiated second-opinion program (2015)

  3. Rare diseases at FDA | U.S. Food & Drug Administration

  4. Diagnostic error in health care | National Academies

  5. The frequency of diagnostic errors in outpatient care: estimations from three large observational studies involving US adult populations (2013)

  6. 25-Year summary of US malpractice claims for diagnostic errors 1986–2010: an analysis from the National Practitioner Data Bank (2012)

  7. Frequently asked questions | Improve Diagnosis in Medicine

  8. The why, when, and how of getting a second opinion on your medical diagnosis | MediFind

Claire Bonneau is a medical writer and certified trauma operating room nurse.

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