Do I have time to get a second opinion?

Unless you're being wheeled into the operating room as you read this, the answer is probably yes. While seeking a second opinion or conducting your own additional research might seem like a no-brainer, 70 percent of Americans never do so, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. Yet research suggests that in up to 30 percent of pathology cases, second opinions can lead to a corrected diagnosis. One Johns Hopkins study that reviewed more than 800 tissue samples from patients with head and neck tumors found troubling discrepancies in 7 percent of diagnoses, with some that had been pronounced malignant turning out benign.

Be prepared: Stop worrying that you'll offend your doctor. Smart physicians know that smart patients seek out other points of view before making major decisions. Begin your search for a second opinion by contacting local chapters of medical associations that specialize in your condition—say, the American Diabetes Association or the Lupus Foundation of America. They can help connect you with specialists who practice in your area. What should you do if your first two doctors don't agree? Get a third opinion.

Can we go over these questions today?

Some physicians whip through appointments in the time it takes to get a car washed, but their need for speed isn't the only thing causing quick visits. There's also a phenomenon known as white-coat silence, which refers to patients' tendency to clam up in the presence of a doctor. A 2012 study in the journal Health Affairs found that one reason people don't ask questions is that they fear being seen as difficult. Yet a lack of communication could lead doctors to mistake your silence for comprehension when they explain test results or procedures.

Be prepared: List all the questions you'd like to ask, and make two copies—one for you and one for your doctor. That way you won't forget important queries, and your doctor will know what information you want to cover. I also suggest bringing a backup: Ask a family member or close friend to go with you to an appointment. Not only will this person serve as a second set of eyes and ears, but she may have questions you would never think to ask.

Next: Can I take this medication with that one?


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