More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman writer Virgil said, “The greatest wealth is health.” Medicine has changed since then. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that it’s still important to put yourself in charge of your health. That’s why many people get a second opinion when they want more information about a diagnosis or treatment approach.

Second opinions are a common, sometimes necessary step in helping you find the best care. But when is the best time to ask for a second opinion? And where do you start? Read on to learn the answers.

When to get a second opinion

It’s okay to seek a second opinion about any aspect of your health care. When you’re getting a second opinion, you’re not being stubborn, closed-minded or challenging. Rather, you’re helping make sure you get the best care.

In certain situations, it’s more common – even routine – to get a second opinion:

You’ve been diagnosed with a rare condition or illness

No doctor can be an expert in everything. If your doctor diagnoses you with an uncommon condition, an expert consultation may result in a more complete diagnosis and a clearer understanding of the best next steps.

You or your doctor needs more information

Maybe your test results or medical imaging are hard to interpret. Or maybe it’s unclear how far your illness has progressed, or which treatment options would be right for you. In these cases, a second opinion can help you find the best path forward.

You want another perspective

Depending on their training and experience, doctors can have different treatment preferences. A second opinion from another doctor, specialist or clinician may offer new insights worth considering.

You’ve been diagnosed with cancer

When you hear you have cancer, the rest of the world seems to go on hold. Getting a second opinion for your cancer diagnosis can help you get answers to your questions so you can start treatment confidently.

You’re considering surgery

Learning how to get a surgery second opinion is a good way to do more research on your procedure. Sometimes, there may be nonsurgical or less invasive treatment options worth considering.

Your treatment plan is experimental, has serious side effects or may not work

Second opinions aren’t just for diagnosing conditions. Even if it’s clear what medical issue you have, verifying your treatment plan is the right choice and exploring alternatives might help you find better-suited care.

You’re not responding as expected to treatment

If this is the case, a different treatment plan may be more effective. You may also have a different condition or illness than you think. Here, a second opinion can help provide clarity.

Does insurance cover second opinions?

It depends. Your insurance may cover second opinions for some conditions but not others. Whether you see someone inside or outside your network can also affect coverage.

In addition, based on your condition or its recommended treatment, a second opinion may actually be required by your insurance plan. This can often be the case with cancer or surgery.

The best idea is to call your insurance company for help. They’ll be able to review your individual situation and let you know your second opinion coverage options.

How to get a second opinion from a doctor

If you think you’d like a second opinion for a medical condition, you’re likely wondering how to get one. Below we cover the key questions about getting a second opinion:

How do I tell my doctor I want a second opinion?

First, don’t worry about feeling like you’re offending your doctor. Just like how we do our homework before making a big purchase, changing jobs or starting a family, it’s normal to research your health care decisions, too. Your doctor has had patients seek second opinions before. In fact, doctors ask for second opinions themselves when they consult with other specialists. Second opinions are a very regular part of medicine.

When telling your doctor that you’d like a second opinion, be upfront and direct. Most doctors will welcome a second opinion – they may even suggest it themselves. But be sure to stay in touch with your current doctor about how your second opinion process is coming along. In most cases, you’re simply looking for additional information and opinions, not necessarily a new doctor.

How do I find the right second opinion doctor?

The best place to start your second opinion search is to ask your current doctor for a recommendation. Your doctor is unlikely to be surprised or offended. After all, getting a second opinion is common before making any major medical decision.

When a doctor seems like they have the right specialty knowledge and skill, go ahead and schedule a second opinion appointment.

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How should I prepare for my second opinion appointment?

Once you’ve made an appointment with your preferred second opinion doctor, you’ll want to make sure they have the same information your doctor has. That way, you’ll know both doctors are working from the same materials.

Call your current doctor’s office to have your medical history, test results, imaging and any other relevant information sent over. Also call your second opinion doctor’s office to make sure they’ve received these items. It’s best to do this as far in advance of your appointment as possible so your second opinion doctor has enough time to review everything.

What are questions to ask when getting a second opinion?

When your appointment comes, ask your doctor about their specific experience with your condition, as well as their training, expertise and treatment approach. You may also find it helpful to bring along a list of questions to dig into during your second opinion. For example, you might ask:

  • How did you arrive at your conclusion?
  • What were the most important factors you considered?
  • How does this compare with other cases you’ve seen?
  • What kind of treatment plan would you suggest?

These questions can help you learn more about how your second opinion doctor arrived at their diagnosis or treatment plan.

What happens after I get a second opinion?

If your doctor and your second opinion doctor agree on your diagnosis, then the course is clear. However, you’ll still want to sort through any differences of opinion on treatment options.

If your doctor and your second opinion doctor don’t agree, take in both perspectives. Ask questions to be sure you understand both doctors’ points of view and compare how they came to their conclusions.

In addition, one of the benefits of having a primary care doctor is you know someone who can help guide you and advocate for your health. They may be able to add insights that clarify your two doctors’ opinions.

How do I use my second opinion?

Ultimately, your health decisions are up to you. You’ll want to pick the diagnosis and treatment options that seem right for you, based on the available evidence.

Regardless of what you decide, you’ll likely feel more comfortable knowing you did your research. That comfort is important because reassurance matters, and no matter what, starting your treatment plan with confidence is always a good thing.

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