No one likes going to the doctor. But sometimes, it pays to go to two.
“Getting a second opinion can often prevent misdiagnoses or improper treatment plans that could lead to other or greater health problems down the road,” says emergency medical physician Leana Wen, M.D., author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests.
Misdiagnoses are anything but rare. One out of 20 adults who seek outpatient medical care receive bad diagnoses, per a recent study published in BMJ Quality & Safety. However, going along with your doc’s misdiagnosis is also pretty common. Eighty-five percent of patients say they wouldn’t dare question their doctors, even when they suspect they are flat-out wrong, according to one Archives of Internal Medicine study.
Even if it turns out that the first opinion was the right one, seeing a second doctor when dealing with serious or scary health issues like cancer, infertility, or autoimmune diseases can help give you the reassurance that you're doing exactly what you need to be doing for the best health outcome possible, says Wen. Getting as much peace of mind as is possible can help make sure that you're invested in your treatment plan—and that you aren’t going crazy worrying about “what-ifs.”
Don’t be shy about getting second opinion. If you leave your doc’s office with a gnawing feeling that the diagnosis doesn’t seem right, you are uncomfortable with your prescribed treatment, or you just don’t feel like your doctor really heard you out, go ahead and put a call in to another office, says Wen. Getting a second opinion is also a solid choice if you’ve tried your doctor’s treatment plan and, even though it doesn’t seem to be working, he or she isn’t giving you any alternatives.
In most cases, you want to see some sort of specialist when dealing with potentially tricky diagnoses, so what kind of specialist you go to depends on the symptoms you’re experiencing and the diagnosis and treatment plan that your doctor gave you. For instance, if a doctor says you have migraines but the headaches you’re dealing with just feel different, you should probably shouldn’t see a gastroenterologist. If a doc says you have to take X, Y, or Z pill for your high blood pressure but you want to exhaust any and all lifestyle treatments before moving on to meds, you’ll want to find a doctor who specializes in integrative medicine.
The funny thing about second opinions is that whomever you visit could still, theoretically, give you a misdiagnosis. To help prevent that from happening, it’s important to make sure that your first doc doesn’t bias your second one, says Wen.
So instead of having your medical records forwarded, ask to receive a copy of any tests that you’ve had performed. Then, send those tests directly to the specialist, says Wen. “The specialist should have all of your tests so that you don’t end up having an MRI performed when you just had one last week,” she says. “But the doctor shouldn’t have your previous doctor’s notes, which could sway his or her opinion. You want the second opinion to be made with a fresh set of eyes.”
If your second opinion jibes with the first one, great. Chances are, you’ve got an accurate diagnosis. If they don’t, you have a few options: While getting a third opinion is an option, it’s probably best to just talk to both doctors about your concerns and the conflicting opinions, especially if one of them is your primary care physician. They will be able to weigh both opinions to get you on the right track.
Even if you have a hunch that one opinion is right and the other is wrong, you want to make sure that your primary care physician knows what treatments you are pursuing, as they are an important part of your health history and could either mesh well or clash with other medications or existing health conditions, she says.
But until you leave the doctor’s office assured that you have the diagnosis and treatment option that’s going to help you meet your health goals, keep scheduling those appointments.