Healthcare System

The Power of Multiple Opinions

In the face of a serious diagnosis, hope and healing may require a 2nd or 3rd opinion
BY Pamela Prince Pyle TIMEApril 5, 2022 PRINT

We were on a three-hour road trip. My husband, Scott, was “driving” a self-driving car, our friend Tommy sat in the passenger seat, and I was in the back.

Tommy was trying to reel in his fear from taking his first-ever ride in a self-driving car and tamp down his growing hunger as the aroma of delicious smoked beef brisket filled the car. Some people get quiet when they’re filled with conflicting emotions. Tommy gets funnier. His one-liners had us laughing deep belly laughs.

But after a while, the mood in the car became more serious. Tommy, a brilliant scholar and author, shared a paradigm shift that had occurred in his family. Doctors had diagnosed his son, Ian, with cancer.

Even though we all know intellectually that such crises happen to families every day, nothing prepares us for the moment when an emergency hits home. When it does, the moment is stamped indelibly on our hearts. We remember where we were, what we were wearing, what scent was in the air, and the exact time on the clock hanging just above the doctor’s head.

In a flash, that imagery then begins to recall all the warning signs that we file in the recesses of our minds. Unbelievable guilt often follows.

“If I had just taken these warnings more seriously,” you think to yourself.

In an instant, we know our life has changed. That reliable anchor tying us to the life we had always known is gone. Suddenly we’re untethered, lashed by tumultuous circumstances, and then left adrift. For others, this paradigm shift feels more like crashing into a brick wall. Either way, life as we know it has changed forever.

While waiting to get in to see the first cancer expert, Tommy and his wife, Debbie, did what most people in “the information age” do: They scoured the internet for help, answers, and statistics on survival success. They sought hope through numbers. But the numbers they found were dismal. Their first visit to the oncologist confirmed their fears that Ian’s cancer had a 35 percent survival rate.

They chose to seek another opinion, which is always advisable with any new and serious diagnosis. A second oncologist, older and more experienced, stated that, in his experience, “normal” treatment had shown a 65 percent chance of long-term survival. Because Tommy and Debbie took the time to ask their long list of questions, they left a little more encouraged.

Tommy and Debbie and all who loved them were praying. They felt called to consult a third experienced clinician, which resulted in yet another prognosis. Looking at the same child, the same cancer, lab results, and the same treatment options, this doctor felt strongly that Ian had a 100 percent chance of long-term survival (and he promised that if anything ever changed in his prognosis, he would promptly inform them).

I’m sure we would choose as Tommy and Debbie did. They began care with the third doctor. Today, many years after that jarring paradigm shift from healthy to sick, Ian experiences good health.

To be sure, not every story ends like this. However, this family’s decision to seek more than one opinion in the face of a serious illness was wise. Don’t minimize the hope offered by doctor No. 3. When the family was trying to stay afloat as waves of despair and hopelessness pounded upon them, this doctor threw them a lifeline.

In this example, there was a clear benefit to what doctor No. 3 had to say about their son.

Research reveals the benefits of seeking second opinions, including a greater sense of satisfaction and health improvement. To make the most of your medical consultations, I suggest a list of questions to bring to medical appointments. This list is included below. Additional practical resources for health care needs can be found at DrPamela.com.

  • Will you please give me in writing the name of my diagnosis?
  • Am I the normal age and gender for this diagnosis?
  • Are there any genetic tendencies for this disease and, if so, do I need to have my children tested?
  • Can you give me descriptions of each treatment path and the associated risk-benefit ratio?
  • Are there any places in the country that specialize in this disease and treatment?
  • Do you have a holistic approach to treating this disease?
  • What can I do to improve my outcome?
  • What is my prognosis?
  • I would like to seek a second opinion. Is this OK with you? (I encourage posing this as a question because the correct answer is always, “Absolutely!” If the doctor becomes defensive, he or she isn’t the best doctor for you, perhaps not even for your first opinion.)
  • If this were your spouse, child, and so forth, what would you do? (The importance of this question can’t be stressed enough. It won’t only give you valuable information, but it will also develop empathy as he or she ponders the reality of the recommendation they’re making.)

The American Cancer Society recommends bringing the following documents to each medical consultation:

  • A copy of your pathology report from any biopsy or surgery
  • If you had surgery, a copy of your operative report
  • If you were in the hospital, a copy of the discharge summary that every doctor prepares when patients are sent home
  • A summary of your doctor’s current treatment plan
  • A list of all your drugs, drug doses, and when you took them.

A similar list of what to bring could be applicable to any serious disease. I would also include radiology reports and, if possible, actual images on a disc.

Not all diagnosis requires seeking more than one opinion. However, in the event of a rare or serious disease diagnosis, doing so may provide additional confidence in your diagnosis and treatment regimen.

Dr. Pamela Prince Pyle is a board-certified internal medicine physician. In 2009, Dr. Pyle began traveling to Rwanda for medical work with Africa New Life Ministries and was instrumental in the founding and growth of the Dream Medical Center in Kigali. She is the author of A Good Death: Learning to Live Like You Were Dying, coming in 2022. To learn more visit her website www.pamelaprincepyle.com and subscribe for more inspiring posts from a Doctor on Mission.
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