The Value of a Second Opinion

If I could tell you one thing, and one thing only to make your healthcare experience better [cheaper], it would be this – when it comes to medical treatments, be sure. I could end the article there, but I’m long winded.

I’d be willing to bet that if you took your car into the shop and the mechanic told you that he had to replace your transmission for $5,000 you’d go and get 5 quotes from any mechanic you can find. But when it comes to our bodies we do no such thing. Perhaps it’s our desire to get better at all costs, perhaps it’s that we’re more comfortable blindly trusting our doctors and believing that they (and only they) know what is truly best. We all have to sleep at night, after all.

Think about a typical diagnosis at your doctor’s office – you go in, they see you, they provide answers and administer treatments. Isn’t it odd that they always know what’s wrong? I mean, how is that possible? Its not.  Your doctor doesn’t always know what’s wrong with you. Now, I don’t want to be accusatory or give the impression that I don’t believe in doctors, so I’m going to let this Mayo Clinic study do the talking. In short, they found that 88% of people had a diagnosis change when they sought another opinion.

The study found that:

  • 21% of individuals had a completely new diagnosis – this means that patients would have pursued the wrong treatment, paid for it, and had to suffer the medical consequences. Imagine if their treatment had involved removing an organ or two. Or if they had to go through chemotherapy only to find out that they didn’t have cancer.
  • 66% of people had to refine their diagnosis – ok, so at least we’re in the ballpark for the diagnosis is. But even if we’re close, that doesn’t mean its right, and when you’ve got surgeries or heavy treatments involved, you’ve got to be right.

88% needed some kind of adjusting – even a minor adjustment to your diagnosis has large implications. Consider this – if you’re actively treating the wrong disease, your correct disease is still going untreated. That means that you’ll have increased symptoms to treat when you do finally get it right.

Dr. Naessens (the research lead) says that primary care providers may be a touch overconfident when giving a diagnosis – “This may prevent identification of diagnostic error, and could lead treatment delays, complications leading to more costly treatments, or even patient harm or death”. That’s pretty serious.

There are a few things that you can do to help to mitigate this risk.

  1. Ask for a referral – you can get a second opinion from a specialist if you’re seeing your GP or primary care physician, they can point you in the right direction. Dr. Naessens warns that lots of people may not feel comfortable asking for this opinion.
  2. Go to a second opinion service. There are a multitude of these available. They’ll look at your current records and any files associated with the treatment to determine if they agree with your doctor. Its nice to have a second set of eyes checking everything over. These guys are usually pretty fast and you don’t even have to see another doctor.