When you should seek a second medical opinion

Seeking medical advice for an ailment can be stressful, but it’s worse when you don’t feel confident in the answers you’re getting from your doctor. But when is it appropriate to seek a second opinion and how to do you go about it?

It can be difficult to know when seeking a second opinion is appropriate. Medical professionals undergo many years of study and training before being allowed to practice. Surely that outweighs your gut instinct, right?

Not always. Doctors and specialists are human, just like anyone, and are prone to the same mistakes and biases. They also have different personalities, with some willing to take more risks in treatment, while others take a more conservative approach.

Asking your doctor for a referral to another for a second opinion can be difficult, which is understandable. Medicine is a science like any other, and science relies on multiple opinions to interpret data. Better Health says:

  • You have the right to ask a doctor for a second opinion if you are unsure about your doctor’s suggested medical treatment or diagnosis.
  • Ask your doctor to give you a referral to another doctor or medical specialist.
  • Ask your doctor to send the other medical practitioner any test results or medical history.

It can also be difficult to know exactly when to seek a second opinion. You may not doubt your doctor’s diagnosis, but Verywell Health says you can benefit from getting a second opinion in a number of scenarios.

Read: Women receive worse treatment than men for heart attacks: study

If you are diagnosed with a rare disease
Some diseases are so rare that little research exists on them. If you’re diagnosed with a rare condition, it makes sense to seek out a specialist who has treated that disease (or others similar to it) to confirm the diagnosis.

If the recommended treatment involves surgery or has lifelong consequences
This is important for your peace of mind. It is never wise to agree to surgery or another invasive procedure without confirming the need.

Often though, people feel that if a doctor suggests a procedure, they have to agree to it. This is not the case and you certainly do have a say in what treatments you agree to.

If you are still experiencing symptoms after treatment
If you’ve gone through the recommended treatment from your doctor and you’re still experiencing symptoms, then something is obviously not right.

It could be the wrong diagnosis, the wrong treatment, or even the wrong dosage of the right medicine. Again, doctors are human and sometimes make mistakes. Seek a second opinion if your symptoms persist after your treatment.

Read: Website empowering older Australians in cancer treatment

If you are diagnosed with cancer
Being diagnosed with something as serious as cancer is a highly emotional event. It can be normal to immediately accept your diagnosis and want to begin treatment as soon as possible. But getting a second opinion in this situation is crucial.

Cancer treatment is an area where opinions can differ wildly between oncologists. There are three main types of oncologist – surgical, radiation and medical oncologists. Each deals with a different method of treating cancer, and can have differing views on how to approach your situation, so it pays to seek out as many opinions as possible on cancer.

But what can you do if your doctor dismisses your symptoms out of hand? This situation can be beyond frustrating, not to mention deadly.

Alexandra Dunn told the ABC she saw four separate GPs about a pain in her abdomen. Her pain was so severe it had been causing her to faint but the doctors she saw dismissed it as period cramps.

Read: Older Australians worried by a spiralling out-of-pocket health costs

“All my symptoms were dismissed as hysteria or exaggeration,” Ms Dunn says.

“One doctor told me, ‘You’re female, get used to it,’ gave me an iron infusion, $450 bill and sent me home.”

But after a night spent in agony and urinating blood in September 2020, Alexandra went back to the GP clinic and “refused to leave without a kidney scan”.

Finally, the scan revealed the cause of her symptoms: a cancerous kidney tumour.

“The pressure and pain I’d felt was the mass growing, and necrosis of my kidney,” she says.

Ms Dunn finally did receive the treatment she needed and recovered, but she says she waited too long to seek different medical opinions.

Patient Advocates Australia (PAA) case manager Dorothy Kamaker says asking your doctor for a second opinion should not be seen as imposing on the doctor, and is actually quite common.

“Only a couple of times in my entire career have I had pushback from a doctor about a patient wanting a second opinion, and my recollection is that those doctors were shonky or arrogant, rather than incompetent,” Ms Kamaker says.

Remember, it’s your health and your body at stake here. Nothing should be more important than that. We rely on many different sources of information when it comes to any other subject, so why should medicine be any different?

Have you ever doubted the advice given by your doctor? Did you seek out a second opinion? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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