How to Own Your Health Through Second Opinions

Nurse and doctor examining xray in hospital

Note: When urgent treatment is required, it is important not to wait to receive a second opinion. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911 immediately.

Think about the last time you bought a car. If I were a betting woman, I would wager that you shopped around at many dealers, spoke with friends and family about your options, and gathered all the information you could before deciding on the vehicle that would hopefully transport you for years to come. As well you should – a purchase of that size is a big commitment.

This is a common process for most financial decisions, yet in some aspects of healthcare, we do not take the same ownership of the decisions that drastically alter our lives. For one, it has only recently become common practice for patients with critical illnesses to seek second (let alone third!) opinions from the best specialists. “Why has it taken this long?,” we should ask ourselves. “What steps can we take to regain some autonomy over our health?” To start, proactively seeking a second opinion can be a strong step forward.

Here are a few initial steps to take:

1. Break down the stigma

You may hesitate to ask about getting a second opinion out of concern that it might offend your primary physician. You’re not alone, and your fears are not unfounded. A decade ago, a New York Times article shared the experience of a physician diagnosed with lymphoma whose internist became angry when he sought a second opinion. “[It was] as if I were his lover and had cheated on him," the physician said describing the reaction. Sheesh.

Luckily, times have since changed. The medical community has increasingly understood the importance of second opinions, and as a result, has been speaking out against this perception that getting a second opinion is an act of distrust or disloyalty. Don’t just take my word for it. Here are some physician perspectives:

Dr. Clayton S. Lau, City of Hope, on the importance of second opinions:

“Diagnostic errors are far from uncommon. With cancer, those errors in diagnosis can have a profound impact. A missed or delayed diagnosis can make the disease that much harder to treat. You have every right to get a second opinion. Be your own advocate." 

Dr. Jonathan Schaffer, Cleveland Clinic, on how to ask for a second opinion:

How about this: ‘I love you, but let’s both get a second opinion.’ It’s you and your doctor in this battle, not you against your doctor.’

Dr. Joseph Fins, New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, on the ethics of asking for a second opinion:

"Every patient has a right to a second opinion. It would worry me if a physician were opposed (to that)."

2. Know when to get a second opinion

It is important to know why and when to seek a second opinion. In the case of urgent medical need, DO NOT delay care to wait for a second opinion. It is generally recommended that you consider seeking a second opinion when you have a critical illness such as cancer or when your physician recommends a non-urgent invasive treatment plan, such as surgery.

You have the right to participate in treatment decisions. Ask your doctor questions, especially if you hear a word or phrase you don't understand. Tell your doctor what you do and do not want to do in regards to your treatment plan. Most of all, do your research to understand your treatment choices, which may include getting a second opinion. For more details, check out our second opinion guide.

3. Don’t limit your opinions

If you are a patient who lives outside the region of the top experts specializing in your disease, an expensive and time-consuming trip is no longer your only option to get a second opinion from them. The advent of remote consultation platforms have offered a way around this geographical barrier to care, with solutions such as Purview’s Expert View enabling remote consolidation and presentation of all relevant health information to a specialist for diagnosis. Institutions around the country are adopting these platforms to reach more remote patients regardless of their location. Skip the expensive flight and ask the providers you are considering if they offer remote second opinions.

4. Get the cost covered

Today, most private and public health insurance plans cover and, in some cases, require medically necessary second opinion consultations, especially in the case of major surgeries. Medicare will even cover a third opinion if the second opinion conflicts with the first. Check with your insurance provider about their second opinion coverage for both in-person and remote consultations.

In summary, your health is your health.

You should not be afraid to ask questions, speak up, do your research and decide with your doctor which treatment plan is best for you. A second opinion is always a good idea, especially before embarking on a costly or intense treatment plan. Today, with so many ways to get a remote second opinion efficiently, there's really no reason you shouldn't seek one out for any major diagnosis.



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