Getting a second opinion
Your multidisciplinary team (MDT) uses national treatment guidelines to decide the most suitable treatment for you. Even so, you may want another medical opinion. This page describes the more common reasons for requesting a second opinion and how you can get one.
This video explains about getting a second opinion about your cancer diagnosis or treatment plan.
The information in this video was correct as of 1 October 2011.
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What is a second opinion?
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A second opinion is when you see another doctor or healthcare provider for their opinion on your diagnosis and treatment. Usually it means you’ll see a different hospital or community specialist (such as a GP or hospital consultant) from your current one.
You might seek a second opinion if you’re concerned about your diagnosis or the treatment you’ve been recommended. Anyone can ask for a second opinion. You can have one on the NHS so you don’t have to pay, or you can choose to have one privately.
How your treatment is planned
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Before describing some of the more common reasons for asking for a second opinion, you may find it helpful to understand what happens when you see your GPor hospital specialist, and how they decide on your condition and treatment.
When you first see your GP, they will ask you about any symptoms you’re having. They may examine you and then, if they can, they will make a diagnosis and prescribe any necessary treatment. Sometimes your GP may want you to have further tests such as blood tests or an x-ray to help them make a diagnosis.
If your GP thinks that your symptoms, or the results of your tests, suggest you may have cancer, they should refer you to a hospital specialist for diagnosis and treatment. The results of the tests your GP has carried out will help them decide which specialist to refer you to. When making a referral, your GP will use national guidelines to assess how urgently you need to be seen by a specialist. Your GP will be able to give you more information about these guidelines.
At the hospital
You may have a number of tests at hospital to help the doctors make a diagnosis. In most hospitals, once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, a team of specialists will work together to plan the treatment they feel is best for your situation. This team of specialists is known as a multidisciplinary team (MDT). Depending on what type of cancer you have, it usually includes a:
medical oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy)
clinical oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiotherapy and chemotherapy)
radiologist (a doctor who specialises in reading scans and x-rays)
pathologist (a doctor who specialises in looking at cells under a microscope and diagnosing the cell type)
nurse specialist (a nurse who gives you information and support during treatment).
Before your cancer treatment can be planned, one of the specialists will see you and arrange for you to have various tests. This is to find out the type and size of the cancer and whether it has begun to spread. The MDT will then meet together to discuss the results and plan your treatment, taking into account a number of factors:
the type and size of the cancer and whether it has spread
your general health
national treatment guidelines for your particular cancer - you can find out more about these from your specialist.
Once your MDT has decided the most suitable treatment options available to you, your specialist will discuss the recommended treatment with you. They should always take your own wishes into consideration as well. Usually this discussion will happen during an outpatient appointment.
If you have a choice of treatments, they will give you time to make a decision about which treatment you wish to have. It’s important that, before your treatment, you feel able to ask any questions and understand the answers given.
Reasons for requesting a second opinion
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Although many people are happy that their GP or the MDT has planned the best treatment for them, some people may want a second opinion. The most common reasons for this are:
You may have doubts about your diagnosis
Some people ask for a second opinion because they’re worried that their GP or consultant may have incorrectly diagnosed their condition. In this case, it’s important to ask for a further appointment so that you can talk to your GP or consultant about any issues. It may help to write down your concerns and show them to the doctor. If you’re unsure about any test results, remember you should be able to ask for a written copy of them and for your doctor to explain them to you.
You may not understand the information you’ve been given
Doctors know that many people find it difficult to take information in when they are anxious or upset. You can always ask for another appointment so that you can go through the information again before going for a second opinion. Many hospital consultants have a nurse specialist working with them who you can either see or phone after your appointment if you need more information. It’s also a good idea to take a relative or friend with you so they can help you remember what was said.
You may not be happy with the treatment that’s been recommended
This could be because you’ve heard from somebody, read in a newspaper or seen on the internet that another treatment is better. It’s important to remember that even if you have the same type of cancer as someone else, the same treatment may not be suitable for you. That’s why doctors plan treatment on an individual basis. If you’re concerned about your treatment, ask for a further appointment with your original doctor. You can talk to them about your concerns. They should be able to explain to you why they have recommended a particular treatment for you.
You may not feel you can talk to your doctor or specialist about your diagnosis or treatment
Some people ask for a second opinion because they find it difficult to talk to their original doctor or hospital consultant. If you feel like this, try telling them that you’re finding it hard to talk with them - often this can help. Or you could ask to see someone else in their team, for example the consultant’s registrar, a nurse, or another GP in the practice.
We have a page about talking to healthcare staff, which has some helpful tips.
Advantages and disadvantages of getting a second opinion
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Before you decide whether you want a second opinion, you may want to think about some of the advantages and disadvantages.
If both doctors are in agreement about your diagnosis and treatment this will help you feel more confident about their decision.
You may find that you get on better with a different doctor and have more confidence in what they say.
You may be offered a treatment that hasn’t been suggested before, or a newer treatment that’s part of a clinical trial.
You may be offered a wider choice of treatments by the second doctor, so you can decide which treatment to have.
Having a second opinion doesn't mean you'll be seen or treated more quickly than anyone else. Your treatment may be delayed by waiting to see another consultant. The person you see for a second opinion will also need to get information from your first doctor, which can delay treatment. You may need to think carefully about having a second opinion if a delay is likely to be harmful to you or reduce your chances of successful treatment.
You may find it upsetting being told the same - or different - news about your diagnosis and treatment if it’s not what you were hoping for.
If you’re offered a different treatment, you may be asked to decide which treatment to have. Some people find this difficult and worry about whether they will make the right decision. However, it’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong decision.
You may have to travel some distance to a different hospital to see another specialist and you may then need to have your treatment at that hospital. This might not be easy for you or your family and may mean you have extra travelling costs.
How to get a second opinion
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If you want a second opinion from a GP, you can ask to see another GP at your surgery or you could consider changing your surgery. You may want to discuss this with the practice manager.
There are different ways of seeking a second opinion from a hospital consultant or specialist. You can ask your GP to refer you to another consultant or specialist, either on the NHS or privately. Or you can ask your current consultant or specialist to refer you for a second opinion. People often worry that this will upset the specialist or that they will be seen as a bad patient. However, many doctors, consultants or other specialists will be happy to refer you for a second opinion if it will be helpful.
Relatives and carers can also request a second opinion on your behalf, but only with your consent. Some people do their own research to find the name of a consultant they think they’d like to see.
When you are referred for a second opinion, any relevant medical information will be sent to the new doctor or specialist. This information will include your scan, test results and any previous treatments.
If, after your second opinion, you want the second doctor, consultant or specialist to treat you, this will have to be formally arranged with them.
Preparing for your second opinion appointment
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It can help to prepare for your appointment by thinking about what you want to get out of it. You could write down some questions and take them with you. It can also help to have someone else go with you.
Here are some questions you may want to ask:
If the second opinion differs from the original one, why?
Are there other treatments I could have?
Do I need any treatment?
What are the side effects of these other treatments?
What impact might the treatments have on my life?
How might other treatments improve my health?
How long will I need to be treated for?
Will I need to have my treatment at another hospital?
Difficulty getting a referral for a second opinion
If for some reason you find it difficult to get a referral for a second opinion, the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) in your local hospital may be able to help. You can get the phone number of your PALS team from the hospital switchboard. Alternatively, your local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) may be able to advise you.
Useful resources and organisations
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Citizens Advice provides free, confidential, independent advice on a variety of issues including financial, legal, housing and employment.
Citizens Advice Scotland
How do I get a second opinion?
The Patients Association
The Patients Association represents the interests of patients to government, professional bodies and the media. It advises individual patients on their rights, access to health services, self-help groups and complaints procedures via a patient helpline.
The information in this section is based on our Getting a second opinion fact sheet and has been compiled using a number of reliable sources, including: