Every patient is entitled to a complete explanation of any diagnosis or proposed therapy so that an informed decision to accept, delay or refuse the recommended treatment can be made. This right to informed consent is especially important if you are faced with major surgery or when the diagnosis you have been given is serious or life-threatening, like cancer. In fact, the more serious the diagnosis and the more drastic the treatment, the more you may want to get another medical opinion from a second doctor. Your own doctor will probably support your request for a second opinion.
Here are some other situations when you might want a second opinion:
- A rare disease has been diagnosed.
- More than one treatment option has been recommended.
- The diagnosis has not been confirmed.
- You are interested in treatment options with which your doctor is unfamiliar.
- You are uncomfortable with the advice you have been given.
Are delays for second opinions risky?
Depending on the nature of the diagnosis, you may want to begin some sort of treatment right away. However, in most cases, obtaining a second opinion shouldn't cause too long a delay and can help to ensure that the treatment you are about to pursue is appropriate for your diagnosis. If you have any doubts regarding your physician's initial diagnosis or treatment recommendations, proceeding without obtaining a second opinion could also be risky. As noted in the American Cancer Society's book Informed Decisions, "most experts agree that in most cases, getting more opinions does not create dangerous delays."
Questions to ask when seeking out a second opinion:
- Is the physician a specialist?
Is the physician associated with a facility that also specializes in the treatment?
- Is the physician associated with a facility that conducts research?
- How frequently does this physician and facility perform the procedure?
- Will my insurance or managed care plan cover the treatment?
- What is my diagnosis?
- What are my treatment options and alternatives and what do you recommend?
- What are the risks vs. benefits of the treatment?
Preparing for the second opinion
It is your responsibility to make sure that all medical records, tests, and x-rays pertaining to your first opinion are forwarded to the second opinion physician. These should be sent prior to your appointment, so that the physician has time to review the records. This can eliminate delays, duplication of tests and additional costs, and provides the physician with a full medical history.
How to use the opinion
If the second opinion confirms your own doctor's diagnosis and treatment, you can be reassured that you probably have the information you need to make your decision. If the opinions differ in any way, ask the doctors to explain their opinions. Your primary care physician can help you evaluate the pros and cons of the conflicting recommendations. You need to be aware of the full range of treatment options.
Your decision is the one that counts!
As the patient facing a serious medical problem, you have to make decisions about accepting or refusing recommended treatments. It's important for you to feel confident that the advice you've been given is the best available. Requesting a second opinion can add to your certainty that you are making the right choice.
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