When you're facing a tough health care decision, you may have a hard time knowing what to do. Is surgery the answer? Is that expensive test the right choice? Is it best to get treatment, or watch and wait?
To answer the big questions, it's a good idea to talk to more than one doctor. This is called getting a second opinion.
When is a second opinion helpful?
For everyday health care, you probably don't need a second opinion. But a second opinion may be a good idea if:
- You are deciding about a costly or risky test or treatment, like a surgery.
- You are not clear about how well a test or treatment may work.
- You need more information about your options.
- You are unsure about a diagnosis.
How do you get a second opinion?
Ask your doctor for the name of another expert, someone with whom he or she is not closely connected. Explain that this is how you like to make big medical decisions. Don't worry about offending your doctor. Second opinions are expected.
If you aren't comfortable asking your doctor for a name, check with your insurance company, a local medical society, or the nearest university hospital.
If you are deciding about a surgery or other special treatment, ask your primary care doctor (such as your internist or family doctor) for the name of a surgeon or specialist who doesn't work with your current surgeon or specialist. Also think about getting an opinion from a health professional with a different background.
When getting a second opinion, follow these steps:
- Ask your health insurance company if it covers a second opinion. For some surgeries, it's required.
- Schedule a visit with the second doctor. Give yourself enough time to arrange for your medical records to get there before your appointment.
- Have your first-opinion records sent ahead to the second doctor.
- Look at the list of forms below, and print the ones that fit your needs best. Use the forms to take notes and to help you remember what questions you want to ask.
- Have the second doctor's office send a report to your primary doctor, the one who manages all your care. This keeps all of your medical information in one place.
Forms you can take to your doctor visit include:
How do you use a second opinion?
When you have gathered the information you need, go over it with your primary care doctor or the specialist of your choice. Talk about how treatment choices might change your daily life, now and in the future. For testing choices, talk about how the results would be useful to you.
If your doctors agree, your decision should be clearer. But sometimes doctors disagree. Even when doctors follow the same guidelines, there may be more than one treatment choice. Two doctors may have good, yet different, opinions about how to treat you.
If the doctors don't agree, talk to your primary care doctor again. Can he or she help you with your decision? If not, and if you still wonder about other options, talk to a different kind of provider. For example, if you are thinking about back surgery, meet with two surgeons and talk to a physical therapist, a physiatrist (a doctor trained to help with recovery from surgery, injury, or stroke), or a doctor with experience in nonsurgical back care. You might learn about some nonsurgical, lower-risk choices you can try.
Remember, the final choice is yours.