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Physicians Are Often the First to Seek a Second Opinion

By Gary Gillis
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

"I've never had a humble opinion. If you've got an opinion, why be humble about it?"
- Joan Baez

It's a great phrase, isn't it? "In my humble opinion…" In my own experience, if there is one thing that most often follows those four words it is the expression of an opinion that is rarely humble. So I give Joan Baez credit for honesty.

Frankly, whether an opinion is humble or not doesn't make much difference to me. What I am most often in search of is an informed opinion. And there are those who would suggest that even one of those is not always enough, especially when it comes to questions of your health.

"My job," according to Dr. Dan Jones, Chief of Minimally Invasive Surgery at  Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, "is to provide the best information possible to my patients and to help them make informed decisions. Sometimes that means getting a second opinion. And by the way, patients aren't the only ones who look for them."

For Dr. Jones, a second opinion is appropriate whenever the patient feels the need to seek one. Some patients may get the benefit of a second opinion of their case even though they never asked.

"When I have a potentially complex case I often seek opinions from colleagues and gather information. Or I might tell my patient that if during surgery we encounter something unexpected, such as tumor that didn't show up in any of our scans or tests, I will call in a specialist and get their opinion on the best way to proceed."

If that doesn't sound like the popular characterization (or perhaps caricaturization) of the doctor as all knowing and arrogant, that's because it is not what Dr. Jones' experiences in his conversations with both peers and patients.

"We know that we have to get the ego out of the way for the moment. When patients ask about a second opinion, don't discourage that. Make sure they get it from somebody who can provide good information. Someone whose opinion matters even though it may differ from your own."

Speaking of information, there is a wealth of it available to patients these days. Some of it is very good, which can be helpful. Some of it may be erroneous, confusing or at the very least, needing a little professional interpretation.

"It's great when the patient can get some straightforward, relevant information but there is a reason to be wary of being your own doctor." Here Dr. Jones speaks from experience. "My mother will have a cough, go online and an hour later she's convinced she has a rare form of tuberculosis. I think it's fair to say that I offer her a second opinion in situations like that."

I may be going out on a limb here, but I don't think Dr. Jones' mother pays anything out of pocket for that second opinion. You may not be so fortunate.

As a patient, you certainly have the right to seek a second opinion. Indeed your physician may encourage it. But in some cases, the insurance company might not pay for it.

"In all likelihood, if it is a straightforward medical issue, you are not going to get the insurance company to pay for a second opinion just because you want one," says Dr. Jones. "I say that knowing that when it's happening to you, not everything seems straightforward. Patients want to know if what I am suggesting is the best standard of care, whether I have done similar procedures before and if so, how many. I do think that often it's as much a matter of reassurance as it is seeking other treatment options."

Dr. Jones knows that people have questions and they want information that will provide answers. It's why he himself sought out a colleague for advice on an issue that was troubling his own 12-year-old daughter.

"She's a lacrosse player and she wanted to know which fall sport would be better for her lacrosse development - soccer or cross-country. I asked one of our anesthesiologists who had played college lacrosse what she thought and she said that soccer would likely help her footwork more," he explained.

"I came home and told my daughter and you know what she said? 'I want a second opinion.'"

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted July 2011

Contact Information

Department of Surgery
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
West Campus, Lowry Medical Office Building
110 Francis St.
Boston, MA 02215