Do You Need a Second Opinion?
When should you seek a second opinion? What if two experts disagree about your treatment?

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Picture of doctor comforting patient Do You Need a Second Opinion?

Making an important medical decision for yourself or a family member can be stressful. You may find that medicine can be more art than science because so much is unknown and uncertain. So what do you do when there is no clear-cut answer about treating your disease or condition? Your doctor may suggest a treatment, but the final decision is yours. It's serious business and that's why getting a second opinion from another doctor may be right for you.

Why do second opinions make sense?
Your doctor should describe the available treatments, along with their risks and benefits. But even the best doctor may not be aware of a promising new treatment.

Two doctors - both excellent - may offer different viewpoints and well-reasoned arguments for taking different approaches. One surgeon may say a tumor is inoperable, for instance, while another will advise you to have it removed. Two doctors may disagree about whether you need a difficult procedure.

When can a second opinion help?
When faced with a serious medical decision, getting a second opinion helps ensure that you'll be told everything you should know. People who take an active role in their own medical care tend to have the best outcomes. If you have doubts about what to do, a second opinion will probably be helpful - unless you need emergency treatment.

A good doctor won't be insulted if you decide to ask for a second opinion. Consider getting one if:

  • You have been told there is no further treatment that can help you.
  • Your doctor describes your situation as "borderline" for which type of treatment would be best for you.
  • You have a rare disease. It may be helpful to find an expert who specializes in that disease.
  • A controversial or experimental treatment is recommended.
  • You aren't sure if the benefits of a treatment outweigh the possible complications and side effects.

Who should I ask?
The second opinion will be most valuable coming from a specialist who does not work with your doctor or the hospital where you're being treated. You can also see a different type of specialist than your present doctor. For instance, if you have breast cancer, get an opinion from both a surgeon and an oncologist.

Ask the second doctor if he or she agrees with the first diagnosis and the advice your physician has given you. More specifically, ask:

  • Is this the most up-to-date form of treatment? Are other types of treatment available?
  • Do I really need this treatment? What is the best timing for this treatment?
  • What are the pros and cons of this treatment?

Check with your health insurance provider
Call your insurance company before you get a second opinion. Ask if they will pay for this office visit. Many health insurance providers do. Some may require you to follow certain procedures.

When should I not get a second opinion?
Don't wait for a second opinion if you need emergency surgery. Some types of emergencies may require surgery right away, such as the following:

  • Acute appendicitis
  • Blood clot or aneurysm
  • Some accidental injuries
By Eve Glicksman, Staff Writer
Created on 01/30/2007
Updated on 08/12/2010
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tools to help you build a healthier life! How to get a second opinion.
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Getting a second opinion before surgery.
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