When to Get a Second Opinion

Questioning the doctor makes most parents nervous -- but sometimes your child's health depends on it.

What It Is

Once upon a time, parents got a second opinion only when their child was facing major surgery or when the doctor gave an unusual or extremely threatening diagnosis. Things have changed.

Today, even if you have complete confidence in your child's pediatrician, you may want a second opinion -- whether to confirm that surgery is really the best option, ascertain that there are no new medical advances your current doctor may not be aware of, or because your insurance company requires one before treatment can proceed.

What Exactly is a Second Opinion?

Getting a second opinion means consulting with two doctors for a diagnosis and recommendation regarding the same set of symptoms. In most cases, the original diagnosis will come from your pediatrician. If he's not certain what's causing your child's problem, thinks your child has a chronic or serious disease, or feels unable to treat your child, he will recommend a consultation with a specialist -- a doctor who specializes in the area of concern, whether it be an allergist, dermatologist, pediatric ophthalmologist, or pediatric urologist.

For example, following a series of strep throats, your doctor suggests that you have a specialist look at your son's throat: While the pediatrician has been able to treat the surface symptoms, she may suspect that there's an underlying problem that a specialist could diagnose. Perhaps your child needs tubes in his ear, something the pediatrician couldn't do herself. In this case, you would probably consult with a pediatric otolaryngologist, or ENT -- a doctor who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose, and throat.

Taking Matters into Your Own Hands

Sometimes parents will get a second opinion on their own; this is called self-referral. Say, for example, your 1-year-old has frequent reflux (when the contents of the stomach are forced upwards into the esophagus). You are becoming worried about his, though your pediatrician says that your child will probably outgrow the problem within a year. Finally you decide to get another opinion.

Maybe you don't absolutely trust your pediatrician's take on your child's problem. Maybe you're just driven by the concern that we all have about our children when something seems wrong. In any event, while it's usually far better to work through your pediatrician when you want a second opinion, some parents take matters into their own hands and do self-referrals to specialists. (Of course, some people don't have that option, depending on the specifics of their insurance plan.)

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