A second medical opinion is a medical decision-making tool for patients, physicians, hospitals and insurers. For patients, it is a way to gain an additional opinion on a diagnosis, treatment or prognosis from another physician. Physicians seeking another colleague’s opinion may refer a patient to another consultant to gain further advice. Many health insurers mandate second opinion programmes to reduce medical costs and eliminate ineffective or suboptimal treatments. Hospitals may also require second reviews as part of routine pathology, radiology reviews or for legal purposes. consultant to consultant referrals. Patients in primary care may also request an opinion from a second specialist when unhappy with the opinion from the first specialist.
We carried out a systematic review to summarise evidence on (1) the characteristics and motivating factors of patients who initiate second opinions; (2) the impact of patient-initiated second opinions on diagnosis, treatment, prognosis and patient satisfaction; and (3) their cost effectiveness. The reivew was published in BMJ Opinion.
Thirty-three articles were included in the review. 29 studies considered patient characteristics, 19 patient motivating factors, 10 patient satisfaction and 17 clinical agreement between the first and second opinion. Seeking a second opinion was more common in women, middle-age patients, more educated patients; and in people having a chronic condition, with higher income or socioeconomic status or living in central urban areas. Patients seeking a second opinion sought to gain more information or reassurance about their diagnosis or treatment. While many second opinions confirm the original diagnosis or treatment, discrepancies in opinions had a potential major impact on patient outcomes in up to 58% of cases. No studies reported on the cost effectiveness of patient initiated second opinions.
The review identified several demographic factors associated with seeking a second opinion, including age, gender, health status, and socioeconomic status. Differences in opinion received, and in the impact of change in opinion, varies significantly between medical specialties. More research is needed to understand the cost effectiveness of second opinions and identify patient groups most likely to benefit from second opinions.