Doctors: when (and how) should you ask for a second opinion?

An old workmate of mine is currently being treated for stage 3 melanoma. As an Australian living in the UK, where the rules of “slip, slop, slap” rarely apply, she raised concerns several times over new moles, only to be politely reassured it was nothing to worry about.

Only on returning home did she get a strong second opinion: that this was serious, and that she needed to get these removed immediately.

Her sad case may be a shocking and extreme example, but it highlights the importance of getting more than one professional opinion.

Few of us want to be the annoying patient who doesn’t accept a doctor’s advice. But sometimes that niggling doubt can persevere. Sometimes it’s simply too difficult to leave a potentially major decision in one person’s hands.

When is this instinct right, and when is it just paranoia? When is it appropriate to ask for a second opinion? And how can you do it without inadvertently offending anybody? The following tips will help set you on the right path.

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The most important thing to remember 

Second opinions don’t have to mean you distrust your doctor or disrespect their authority. It’s simply about making as informed a decision as possible, and recognising that one person’s expertise – however reliable – can only go so far.

The bigger the potential consequences of a medical decision, the more comfortable you (and your doctor) should feel about getting better informed.

What situations should get a second opinion?

When there’s any risk involved, or a medication/procedure could have worrying side effects, you are well within your rights to ask.

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For example, bypass surgery can be incredibly risky – but another doctor might recommend medications or less invasive treatments in its place. One decision may be too much, putting you at risk of infection or side effects. Another may be undertreating a serious problem. This is not always a judgement one person can make.

How can you politely ask?

While this can be an awkward conversation to have, it’s nowhere near the betrayal it may seem to be. In fact, your doctor should be able to help you find another trusted party to help you.

The most important factor is to be polite and up-front. Bowel Cancer Australia lists some enormously helpful ways to ask:

  • “Before we start treatment, I would like to get a second opinion. Will you assist me with that?”
  • “If you had my type of cancer, who would you see for a second opinion?”
  • “I think I would like to speak to another specialist to be sure I have all my bases covered.”
  • “I’m thinking of seeking out a second opinion. Can you recommend someone? If so, who would you recommend, and why?”
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Note that many of these suggestions still show a great deal of trust and respect in your doctor; it keeps it on their terms.

Simple white lies can also help. Suggest, with an apologetic smile, that a spouse or family member has insisted that you get more opinions before making a decision.

What else can help?

To make your decision easier, do what you can to retain the information your doctor shares. Take notes; invite somebody else to join you; ask for clarification and repetition whenever needed. This will help you review the information on hand with far greater confidence.

Have you ever sought out a second opinion? Did you have trouble with it? What advice would you offer those in a similar situation?