Second Opinions Can Save Your Life

For many years I have been discussing the importance of a second opinion as a way to avoid being the victim of medical mistake.  Doctors are only human and we do not know as much about the human body as we would like.  In spite of advances in medicine, doctors continue to make mistakes in diagnosis.  If you have a diagnosis, how likely is it to be the right one?  A recent study out of the Mayo Clinic casts some light on the question.

The researchers conducting the study looked at 286 patients who had been referred for a second opinion by someone at their primary care practice.  Each patient came with a diagnosis but obviously there was something which caused the physician or physician’s assistant at the primary practice to send them for a second opinion.  It is also significant that the study was conducted at the Mayo Clinic, an academic institution with a well-deserved reputation for excellence in diagnosis.

Each patient gave a history and was examined.  When appropriate, laboratory tests were ordered.  The outcomes were divided into three categories:  (1) Original diagnosis confirmed; (2) Original diagnosis improved or refined; and (3) New and different diagnosis.

In 12% of the cases, the original diagnosis was found to be correct.  In 66% of the cases the original diagnosis was refined and made more accurate.  Importantly, in 21% of the cases the diagnosis was very different from the original diagnosis.  Think about that.  In over 85% of the cases, the original diagnosis was changed to some degree.  In more than 1 in 5 cases, the original diagnosis was very wrong.

You don’t have to wait for someone to suggest you consider getting a second opinion.  Medicine is a business and we are its customers.  Just because a doctor tells you that you have a certain condition and need a certain treatment or a certain surgery, does not mean that it is true.  When it comes to surgery, it has often been pointed out that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  Even setting aside the fee for service profit motive, doctors can make mistakes and you should be as sure as you can be that they are right before you make a big decision about treatment or surgery.

Don’t just get a second opinion from anyone.  You are most likely to get a solid second opinion from an academic institution where they are not trying to sell you anything.  Good luck and be an informed consumer of health care services.

Posted in Doctors, Fee for Service, health, Health Care Costs, medical errors, medical mistakes, Medical Negligence, Misdiagnosis |