6 Reasons You Need a Second Opinion, Doctors Say
It can be worth the effort for peace of mind, more specialized care, and alternative treatment options.
When making any major decisions about your health, experts say it can't hurt to get a second opinion. In fact, a 2021 Mayo Clinic study found that doing so cuts the risk of misdiagnosis in half. And an earlier study by the Mayo Clinic found that one in five patients receive a different diagnosis from their second doctor—highlighting how variable and subjective diagnoses can be. Doctors are human beings, after all, meaning they can occasionally make mistakes, and their opinions can be swayed by unconscious biases.
Karla Robinson, MD, Medical Editor at GoodRx, tells Best Life that she often recommends seeking out a second opinion, even if it's just for peace of mind. However, Joshua Carothers, MD, Chief Medical Officer at VIP StarNetwork, says you should skip getting a second opinion when doing so will delay your treatment and worsen your condition. Ben Paxton, MD, a board-certified radiologist at Vascular & Interventional Specialists of Prescott, also notes that getting a second opinion can sometimes be costly, particularly if you need to see multiple specialists or undergo additional X-rays and lab tests.
With all that in mind, read on for six scenarios in which doctors strongly advise seeing another doctor about your diagnosis.
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Your condition isn't improving.
Let's say your doctor has tried multiple medications, but your condition isn't getting any better (or is getting worse!) yet they haven't ordered more tests or considered exploring alternative treatments. According to Christopher Hollingsworth, MD, a board-certified general surgeon at Integrative Health of New York, that might be a sign that it's time to see a different doctor.
It's possible you may have another underlying condition that's exacerbating the problem, or that your doctor simply hasn't adequately explored the potential causes of your ongoing issue, he explains, nothing that it's also worth getting a second opinion if you continue having the same issue after surgery—for example, if your doctor recommends gallbladder removal surgery to alleviate your abdominal pain, but you continue to experience that pain after the procedure.
You're diagnosed with a rare condition.
There are about 7,000 rare diseases affecting roughly 25-30 million people in the U.S.—and studies show that these diseases are often misdiagnosed. A 2014 survey found that people with uncommon conditions have to visit an average of 7.3 physicians and wait for an average of 4.8 years after symptom onset to get an accurate diagnosis.
According to Robinson, getting a second opinion is immensely helpful if you have a rare disease because these are not as well-researched as more common conditions. Because your doctor rarely sees patients with these rare diseases, they may have a harder time recognizing the tell-tale symptoms, and may not be as well-versed in which treatments are effective.
You're facing a high-risk surgery.
If your doctor recommends an organ transplant, brain surgery, heart surgery, or colorectal surgery, it's wise to get a second opinion, says Paxton.
"These procedures can have serious and potentially life-threatening complications, and seeking multiple expert opinions can help you make an informed decision and choose the best possible course of action," he tells Best Life.
You're struggling with chronic pain.
Diagnosing and treating chronic pain can be extremely nuanced and complex, says Paxton. For example, fibromyalgia—a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain throughout the body—can be difficult to manage because it's not clear what causes it and there's no standardized treatment.
Chronic pain can severely impact your quality of life. So, if it hasn't improved, it's a good idea to seek a second opinion.
"It's important to explore all treatment options before committing to any long-term therapies," Paxton adds.
Your diagnosis calls for a specialist.
All doctors may be well-trained in general human health and common diseases, but some complex and chronic or life-threatening conditions require specialty care, says Hollingsworth. Specialists such as cardiologists, endocrinologists, infectious disease doctors, and gastroenterologists all have advanced education and training in a specific area of medicine. That means they may have a stronger understanding of your condition and how to best treat it.
"For example, an emergency room doctor might recommend surgery as a solution for your dislocated shoulder based on their expertise, but an orthopedist who specializes in shoulder injury might have a different perspective," adds Robinson.
Note, though, that some health insurance companies won't cover your visit to a specialist unless you have a referral from your primary care physician (PCP). When in doubt, it's a good idea to just ask your PCP for a referral.
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You don't feel comfortable with the treatment plan.
Feeling uneasy about your treatment plan? That's a good sign that it's time to get a second opinion, Carothers tells Best Life.
As Robinson points out, there may also be different treatments available that your current provider doesn't offer or know about. For example, let's say you have chronic pain but want to avoid taking opioids due to their highly addictive nature. If your doctor isn't offering any other alternative options— like acupuncture, physical therapy, or electrical nerve stimulation—then you might want to see someone else.
Remember: Your concerns are valid. Unless you require emergency treatment for a life-threatening condition, it can be worth the wait for a second opinion to ensure that you're comfortable with the treatment plan being offered.