Medical Second Opinions: An Under-utilized Option for Patients

This post was authored by Theresa Neumann and posted to The Eye Opener on May 2nd, 2011.

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Today’s medical world is vast with various technologies, treatments and options.  So, if a patient is diagnosed with a medical condition, and doctor A recommends treatment A, what keeps the patient from seeking a second opinion? This is an interesting phenomenon.  After performing intake summaries and client interviews for quite a while now, it still amazes me how many people have bad outcomes from surgery simply because they never requested a second opinion. Second opinions are not simply reserved for surgery, though; cancer treatment options, medical therapies for chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, chiropractic care of chronic back or neck pain are some other conditions that, in my mind, scream for a second opinion!

Having practiced medicine for 13 years, working with physicians from all specialties, I can honestly say that doctors are not gods. They are human beings, no different than you or me, and human beings are prone to prejudice and errors. Granted, physicians go through a lot of education and training to perform their daily duties, but location of training, timing of training and educational mentors play a huge role in shaping the decision-making process of these humans.

Inherent limitations that can affect physician recommendations

For example, the latest technology for prostatectomy has been the DaVinci procedure, using minimally invasive robotic technology to surgically remove the prostate.  Operation of the robotics involves manipulation of “joysticks”, much like video-gaming. No offense, but if your particular urologist is 60 years of age or older, what are the chances that this particular surgeon is as adept with these skills or technology as a 30-year-old urologist?  Special training is required for use of these robotics, and not all hospitals even have the technology available. Therefore, one’s choices are automatically limited, and a minimally-invasive robotics-assisted procedure may not even be an option! A second opinion by another urologist at a different facility might be able to provide that option. A similar situation would be the use of gamma knife surgery for removal of brain tumors; it is not always an option available based on the facility or the neurosurgeon providing the consultation.

Can recommendations be limited by specialty?

Another example has to do with medical specialty affiliation. If one is trained as a surgeon, he/she focuses on the technical removal or repair of abnormal body parts. If one is trained in radiation-oncology, the focus would be the various radiation technologies available for treatment of disease. If one is a medical oncologist, chemotherapy protocols for the particular neoplastic condition would be the focus.  So who ties all of this together?  First of all, is the tumor even operable? Is the patient a good candidate for surgery? Should one try radiation first to shrink the tumor, then follow it with an operation? Is chemotherapy the way to go, but which regimen of drugs is really appropriate? These are very technical and complex questions. Should one leave the ultimate recommendation up to one specialty physician?

Suggested approach to the problem

For me, it would be a little more comforting to get the same overall recommendation from two independent physicians. What if the opinions differ?  A third opinion? – or, simply focus on the discrepancies with direct questioning of the two physicians and find out the rationale for the recommendation being made. You do not know how many times I have heard, “I trusted my doctor.” I ask you, if your car was making a rattling noise but seemed to be running okay and a mechanic told you a new transmission was necessary at the cost of $1800, would you get a second opinion?

Don’t let fear or reprisal get in your way

One of the main reasons for fear in seeking second opinions is anticipated disapproval and potential retaliation by the first physician or fear of a change in the patient-physician relationship.  I pose to you the following:  if a physician has done his/her research regarding the condition and is confident is his/her recommendation, then he/she should not fear the opinion of a peer. If that opinion differs, it should be reviewed for accuracy and appropriateness because it might just be a viable option not previously considered. If the physician is “offed” by the patient’s search for a second opinion, that physician thinks way too highly of himself/herself; keep in mind that this is about the patient who has a condition that requires treatment, not the physician’s integrity or ego. It is my firm opinion that physicians should be proud of those patients who advocate so strongly for themselves and seek to be educated about their condition.  Education leads to a better understanding of the disease process, better expectation of the “road ahead,” and better patient compliance with medical therapies. Retaliation is prohibited by the medical code of ethics; if there is a retaliatory action, the state’s Medical Board should be notified and prompted to investigate.

Beware of the on-line second opinion approach!!!

Recently, multiple facilities have offered a “second opinion service” via the internet. A patient submits his/her medical condition along with various lab studies and other diagnostic imaging (CT scans, x-rays, MRI scans, etc.) for review over the internet; an opinion is provided based on these facts!  What this really doesn’t take into consideration is the patient!  Patients are people – human beings with emotions, physical limitations, families (or not), previous histories and other underlying health conditions. One of the things I was taught in PA school was to treat the patient and not the numbers!  Not all patients are surgical candidates.  Not all patients can emotionally or physically tolerate some of the chemotherapy protocols. Someone might look good on paper with great blood parameters, vital signs, etc., but in person, one’s assessment changes dramatically.  These virtual second opinions may have their place in certain situations, but I generally have to question the validity of such an assessment.

A “real-life” story

I leave you with a quick summary of a case:  Mr. B was a 40-something, physically fit male professional, who loved to work out and exercise. He developed some mechanical back pain for which he sought treatment. An MRI scan revealed an incidental finding of small spinal cord glioma in the low back. Clinically, there was no evidence to support that this incidental finding was in any way related to Mr. B’s pain. He sought the advice of a neurosurgeon, who immediately wanted to operate. Well, if research had been done, these particular tumors are 99% benign, very slow-growing and can often be monitored for 10 to 20 years before surgery might even be necessary.

Mr. B followed the advice of the surgeon and underwent a resection of this small tumor. The surgery required resection of the S1 nerve root, which affects sensation in the genital region and anus; Mr B was now impotent and had problems with bowel movements in addition to a chronic burning sensation in his genital region. A second opinion might well have saved Mr. B a lot of pain, permanent erectile dysfunction and money required to undergo alternative methods for conception. He’ll never know now.

Have you or someone you know gotten second opinions before making a decision about an important medical procedure? What’s your approach? Have you ever received different opinions about how to treat a condition? How did you resolve this situation? Any tips for others?

Image: Wellsphere.com

Update: After posting Theresa Neumann’s piece this morning, I came across a somewhat related post on KevinMD.com entitled Marcus Welby and the relentless growth of specialization. The author, Jan Henderson, PhD, raises some very interesting thoughts about what I would call the “over-specialization” of medicine. She provides the following quote of Dr. Welby from very first episode of this TV show of years gone by, which – to me – supports one of the concerns raised by Theresa in her blawg:

… I hope some of you will go into general practice. For if you don’t, where will a patient turn who doesn’t know that he has an orthopedic problem? Or a neurological problem? Or a psychiatric problem? Or a nutritional problem? But who only knows that, in lay terms, he feels lousy.

Just some food for thought you might enjoy.

Brian Nash (editor of “Eye Opener”)

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