A few years ago I started writing a book on what it was like to be a cancer patient and an oncologist. This morning I came upon this section on second opinions:

Is it OK to get a second opinion?

Definitely. And there’s no need to be secretive about it, or to worry about hurting the doctor’s feelings. Second opinions are routine in fields like oncology, and are often covered by insurance. Be up-front: any decent oncologist can understand a cancer patient’s need to find a doctor who’s right for them, with whom they’re comfortable making important decisions. And in difficult cases, some specialists appreciate the chance to discuss the situation with another expert. So a second opinion can be beneficial to patients and physicians alike.

When things can get out of hand, though, is when patients start “doctor shopping.”  For example, I’ve cared for some patients with leukemia who’ve been to see over 10 oncologists. If you’re acutely sick, this sort of approach to illness can be counterproductive; it can delay needed therapy. From the physician’s perspective, it’s alienating; who wants to invest her time, intellectual effort and feelings for a patient who’s unlikely to follow up? Besides, oncology is the sort of field where each consulting doctor may have a distinct opinion. (If you see ten oncologists, you may get ten opinions…). Beyond a certain point, it may not help to get more input, but instead will cloud the issue.

As things stand, oncologists often discuss difficult cases with their colleagues. This happens at academic centers and hospitals, where tumor boards meet regularly to review the diagnosis and management of each cancer case, and informally in private practices, where physicians are likely to discuss certain aspects of treatment with their partners. For patients with very rare conditions, some oncologists will call experts in the field whom they may know through national meetings, journals, and other resources. What this means for patients is that through one consultant, they may be getting input of more than one expert, although they may not be aware.

So I recommend that patients with cancer, or any other serious or rare condition for that matter, get a second or third opinion about the best way to manage their illness. But at some point you’ve got to select one among those specialists, even if she’s not perfect, and stick with her at least for a while, until you have a good reason to switch or move on. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to have a doctor who cares when you’re really sick and, later, about your long-term well-being.

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