The Medical Consumer, A Second Opinion

The old adage states that "two heads are better than one," but when it comes to getting a second opinion about pursuing a medical procedure for a loved one, caregivers often hesitate. For one thing, they worry about offending the specialist who made the recommendation in the first place. After all, specialists can spend a decade or more acquiring the expertise that stands behind their judgment and know vastly more about the medical issues than the average caregiver. Caregivers may also feel that they just don't have enough time to go through the process of tracking down another physician and having their loved one's records copied and transferred to the new physician's office.

But unless your loved one needs emergency surgery, getting a second opinion is worth the effort—and it's one that good doctors actively encourage. Physicians are individuals. Although they share a body of medical knowledge, they have their own opinions and thoughts about how to put that knowledge into practice—and these differences come into play in a variety of ways. The tools we use to diagnose disease are wonderful in their effectiveness, but they rarely provide absolute certainty. Individual viewpoints color the way physicians interpret test results. These philosophical differences extend to treatment. Some doctors take a conservative approach to treating their patients, while others are more aggressive and use the latest tests and therapies.

When seeking a second opinion, a good place to start is to ask your loved one's specialist for a recommendation. Their primary care provider can also make an informed recommendation, based on knowledge of the local medical community and the experiences of their other patients. But before you set up an appointment, it makes sense to call your loved one's insurance provider. Find out if it will cover the second office visit, and if there are any restrictions on additional tests that a second physician might order.

With this understanding in mind, make an appointment for you and your loved one to see the second doctor. Do not rely on a telephone conversation, since a physical examination is the key to an informed evaluation. Then have medical records sent to the second doctor so that they arrive in time for the physician to review them before seeing your loved one. There may be a charge involved in copying these files—and you should follow up to make sure they arrive promptly.

Getting a second opinion may expose you to fresh perspectives and new information. It could provide you with new options for treating your loved one's condition that might conform more closely to their wishes, or it may confirm their original physician's recommendations. In either case, you can move forward feeling that you and your loved one have made the best decision under the circumstances—and you'll spend less time later second-guessing your choice.