When actress Rita Wilson recently announced that she had breast cancer, many people were dismayed. But dismay turned to shock when Wilson disclosed that her original pathologist had found only precancerous cells. After she consulted another physician, she was alerted that she had, in fact, developed invasive breast cancer. It was a clear reminder of how important second opinions can be. Unfortunately, though, many of us never seek them out. According to a Gallup poll, 70 percent of patients feel so confident in their doctor's advice that they don't get another physician's input.

Research shows just how much that kind of blind faith can cost us: A new University of Washington study found that when 115 pathologists were shown the same breast biopsy slides from women with atypical cells, roughly half of them came back with conflicting diagnoses. Some marked those cases as noninvasive breast cancer; others thought the cells looked normal. "Breast biopsies can be very challenging to interpret," says lead study author Joann Elmore, MD. But this isn't just about breast cancer; anytime your doctor discovers an abnormality or you have a gut feeling that your symptoms are being dismissed or misinterpreted, you shouldn't be afraid to consult other experts. In case you were wondering...

Q: Will my doctor hate me?

Not at all! "A lot of people think that if they want a second opinion, their physician will be offended," says neurologist Orly Avitzur, MD, medical adviser at Consumer Reports. "But when a patient tells me she wishes to talk to another doctor, I try to be as helpful as possible. A fresh set of eyes on a diagnosis can never hurt, and I want my patients to see me as an ally in their healthcare, not a hindrance."

Q: Where do I even start looking?

If your diagnosis came from your primary care physician (which is often the case), ask her to refer you to a specialist at a different practice, says Bimal Ashar, MD, clinical director of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. If you want to do some searching on your own, Vitals.com offers physician information and patient reviews. But before you settle on a new doc, ask a few important questions: "If you're having surgery, find out how many similar operations the doctor has done, as well as her complication and success rates," says Ashar. "You want to make sure your case matches her area of expertise."

Q: Will I have to go through the same tests all over again?

In most instances, you won't. Obtaining a second opinion can be as simple as asking a different doctor to review your original scans if you've undergone screening tests like an MRI or a mammogram. "Just ask, 'Can I have a digital copy of my scans and lab results?' and the technician will give them to you," says Ashar.

Q: What if I can't find another specialist in my town?

If you live in an area with few medical providers, you can take advantage of e–second opinions, which are offered by major hospitals like Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic. You send in your medical records, slides or scans, and a doctor will review them and email you a report of the findings.


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