You may have seen in recent headlines or news reports that actress Rita Wilson says getting a second medical opinion may have saved her life. The 58-year-old who is married to Tom Hanks recently had a double mastectomy based on a second (and later a third and tie-breaking) diagnosis of breast cancer.
Believe it or not, I had written the headline for this article before Wilson’s experience came to light. Nothing has changed since then except that having a celebrity speak out has definitely put the idea – and importance – of getting a second opinion in the forefront. It gets people talking and hopefully realizing that it’s OK to ask for another opinion – especially when the diagnosis involves a major health concern or treatment.
This is important. A 2005 Gallup Poll reported that just 44 percent of people have ever thought about getting a second opinion. And amazingly, only 3 percent always get one. Yet, many of us would automatically get a second opinion regarding car repairs, home maintenance or wedding planning. Why does our own health take a backseat?
Common answers to that include people trusting their doctor, not wanting to challenge their doctor, and not wanting to hurt their doctor’s feelings. Another reason that people give for not getting a second opinion is insurance concerns. Is a second (or even third) opinion covered? Completely? Does the 2nd doc need to be in the same HMO? If so, can you trust that physician to be honest or will they just back up their co-worker?
Rita Wilson had been monitoring an area of concern when the pathologist who read her biopsy results came back with a negative diagnosis — just what she wanted to hear. But a friend suggested she get a second opinion – a scary choice, but in her case, one that may have saved her life. The second reading came back positive and a third confirmed the malignant diagnosis. She had the mastectomy.
Keep in mind that not all diagnoses are black and white. And experts don’t always agree. A 2006 University of Michigan study showed that surgery recommendations changed for more than half of the breast cancer patients who got a second opinion.
And of course, not all second opinions involve cancer. They might be heart related or injury related or one of a myriad of other health conditions. And it doesn’t have to be a life and death situation to warrant a second opinion. Sometimes injuries clearly require surgery – but other times they’ll improve with physical therapy. Sometimes heart surgery is warranted and other times age or frailty can make surgery too risky.
So how do you decide if you need a second opinion?
Well, first of all, do your homework about the diagnosed illness or injury. The web is a good place to start, but go to reputable websites such as the Mayo Clinic, Medscape or John Hopkins. After reading about the disease and common treatments you may see comments from other “patients.” While the experiences of others can often be really helpful, they can also be confusing. Please read these with a grain of salt! No two cases are exactly alike – your illness may be at a different stage. Your age or health may be a factor. Your lifestyle also needs to be considered — if you’re active and otherwise healthy, your treatment choice may differ widely from that of an 85-year-old who’s sedentary and has other health concerns. And remember that people with a negative experience may be more likely to take the time to complain and share their stories than those with positive results – who are too busy getting on with their life!
Next, ask your primary care physician for a recommendation on where to go for that second opinion. It’s best to go to a different clinic – possibly even a different community. Doctors are only human and may tend to back up a fellow professional – for all the reasons why you were reluctant to ask for a second opinion in the first place.
Check with your health insurance regarding coverage. It can vary greatly. Many insurers will cover the second consultation but not the diagnostics such as x-rays, tests and other procedures that have already been performed by the original doc. You’ll need to get these along with your medical records and have them sent to the second doctor. Find out what he or she needs and be sure to request it in plenty of time.
What if your insurance won’t cover a second opinion? Experts suggest that you speak directly with the medical director to give your reasons and plead your case. If that doesn’t work, take your appeal to the grievance committee. If you’re a senior on Medicare, go to www.Medicare.gov/physicianscompare to find out what would be covered. It may be more than you think.
So you’ve finally gotten that second opinion. What happens if the doctors disagree? Unfortunately, there’s no cut and dried answer to that. Who do you trust the most? What are their credentials and/or experience with your illness or injury? What is involved with each course of treatment? Ask each of the doctors to explain how they reached their diagnosis and treatment plan. Would waiting be risky? Could immediate treatment have negative results? Can you take it to a third doc?
If possible, discuss the options with one or more other people – family members or health professionals are good. Talking it over can help you see what’s important and garner the support of family and friends. You may be the one making the decision, but you don’t have to go it alone.
And if you live, or would like to live, at one of the Discovery Village Senior Living Communities you’ll find plenty of support — from other residents to the specially trained health professionals on staff to exercise classes and the warm water wellness pool. Whatever you decide to do, they’ll help you get back to your old self in no time!
Discovery Village At Melbourne offers a variety of senior living programs to keep seniors healthy and active. Learn about our senior living options and amenities today when you contact us at 321.600.4747.