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When to Get a Second Opinion

When to Get a Second Opinion

Actress Rita Wilson, wife of actor Tom Hanks, recently revealed a very personal decision. After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. What’s really making headlines, however, is that her cancer was detected only after she sought a second -- and then third -- opinion on her biopsy results.

Given the value of early detection in cancer and other conditions, you may be wondering: When should I get a second opinion?

Many experts recommend getting a second opinion when the stakes are high. "And that doesn’t have to be cancer,” says Keith Roach, MD, chief medical officer of Sharecare and associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. You may want to get a second opinion before undergoing routine surgery or taking a course of powerful medications.

“The importance of a second opinion is two-fold. The more important reason is to avoid an error in diagnosis and to ensure proper treatment. The second reason is to provide a level of comfort and certainty to the person who is looking at the upcoming medical procedure.”

Pathologists and radiologists are experts at interpreting the results of cancer tests, but they’re not infallible. That’s why most doctors agree that getting a second opinion is reasonable and do not get upset by a cautious person seeking them. “Double checking the pathology in the very first place before treatment starts can make a significant difference in terms of the outcome,” says Dr. Roach.

Michael Roizen, MD, Sharecare advisory board member and chief wellness officer at Cleveland Clinic, agrees. He says whether you’re looking at a mammogram, a pathology specimen or the need for antibiotics, 30 percent of the time the diagnosis and/or treatment changes with a second opinion.

In cases where the first and second medical opinions are at odds, “keep on going until you get consistency,” Dr. Roizen says. “We get very difficult cases here [at the Cleveland Clinic]. In fact sometimes we get patients seeking fourth and fifth opinions. And if we still don’t know what’s wrong, we’ll say, look, we don’t know, but this is what treatment we’re going to try at first. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go another way.” 

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