Get That Second Opinion !

Second Opinions

Getting that second medical opinion can mean the difference between life and death.
Yet we sometimes hesitate. Find out why -- and what can be done to overcome those fears.

by Tom Philbin

Before many people buy a car, television or major appliance, they shop around for the best deal. Yet, when some of these people find themselves in a position in which a second medical opinion is a good idea - when facing complicated or elective surgery, for example, - they balk. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. But sometimes it can lead to the wrong treatment, complications, even death. Health professionals say there are a variety of reasons why we fear that second opinion. Some of those reasons follow -- with tips on how to overcome them.

bulletFear of Offending The Doctor
A number of psychological roadblocks get in the way of second medical opinions, but one of the most common is the fear of offending the doctor--and the deeper implications of that.

Dr. Gerald Melchiode, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and co-author of "Beyond Viagra," says: "Patients think that in bringing up that they want to get a second opinion they’re questioning the doctor’s ability, so in the interest of not offending him they don’t suggest it."

But they go beyond that. They fantasize that the insulted doctor won’t take care of them.

"In the majority of cases," says Dr. Melchiode, "doctors won’t mind patients getting a second opinion at all. Many will welcome it. But in some cases, if the doctor lacks self-esteem, he will feel offended." In rare cases, a doctor may not only resist, but tell the patient not to seek a second opinion. "In either scenario," says Edward Balyk, a clinical psychologist in New Jersey, "you'd better get another opinion."

Adds Dr. Melchiode, and Edward Balyk concurs, "The best way to reduce anxiety about suggesting to your doctor that you want a second opinion is to have a conversation with him. Be honest and open. Tell him you face a serious procedure and need to know you’re doing the right thing, hence another opinion."

bulletFear Of Worse News
Another reason people avoid getting a second opinion is fear of the second doctor giving them worse news than the first. Says Balyk: "You fear that if you go for, say, an ingrown toenail, he’ll tell you that the toe must come off." The most important consideration is that it’s in your self interest to get another opinion -- and it may not be worse.

bulletAn Exalted View of the Doctor
"Most people trust, even revere their doctors," says Dr. Quentin Ted Smith, clinical professor of psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, "and imbue them with godlike qualities. So they trust their doctor is right, and don’t ask for a second opinion. In fact, it doesn’t even occur to them that they should." Dr. Smith points out that in some cultures, such as Africa and India, the physician is even more idealized than in America.
But you should remember that the doctor is a human being--just like you.

bulletSickness May Promote Poor Judgment
"When people are sick," says Dr. Melchiode, "they feel vulnerable, and they regress, and become childlike. They transfer all types of good feelings onto the doctor and just let him take over." That might not be the best thing.
And sometimes, obtaining that second opinion just seems like too much work. Says Dr. Smith: "People just don’t want to go through the process of going to another doctor, gathering medical records, X-rays, slogging through their medical history, etc. It’s just too much trouble."
Let family members or friends help with advice.

The purpose of a second opinion, of course, is to collect information so you can make as informed a decision as possible on your medical care. Educate yourself on your condition as soon as you know what it is. The know-how will empower you -- and enable you to ask better questions of your doctors.

bulletVisit the Library. Ask the reference librarian about your topic. He or she will likely produce more books, pamphlets and magazine articles than you can lift--no less read!

bulletSurf the Net. The Internet is loaded with useful health information, but take care that it comes from a reliable source. Look at sites sponsored by major teaching hospitals or universities. One good one: the Mayo Clinic.

bulletTalk With People Who Have Been There. It can be both comforting and enlightening to discuss your condition with someone who has been through it. Exercise caution, however, in Internet chat rooms. They might also be a source of potentially harmful misinformation.

bullet Contact The National Institutes of Health. This government agency has links to 18 different institutes. Call the NIH at 301-496-4000, tell them which disease you want to know about, and they will forward your call to the appropriate institute. That institute can provide you with literature -- most of it free or inexpensive. Or visit


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