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First Opinion Good Enough for Most Patients

First Opinion Good Enough for Most Patients

Only 3% always seek second opinions

by Rick Blizzard

Most investors would never invest without doing their homework and likewise, most job seekers would never embark on a career without considering others. Despite the potential life-changing consequences, patients rarely seek second opinions from other doctors.

In response to a recent Gallup Poll Panel survey of almost 5,000 Americans*, about half (49%) said they "never" seek a second opinion when their doctor "diagnoses a condition, or prescribes a treatment, drug, or operation." Forty-one percent said they "sometimes" seek a second opinion, while just 3% said they "always" seek one.

Today's healthcare system may be conducive to seeking second opinions. Many patients are tied to one physician group practice but don't see the same physician each time they go there. Along the same lines, a stream of different consulting physicians, each of whom may offer a different opinion on the course of treatment, often visit hospital patients.

People Most Likely to Seek Second Opinions

Female panel respondents were more likely than male respondents to say they personally decide where their family members receive medical care, and other Gallup polling indicates women tend to go to the doctor more often than men. It seems logical to assume women have more opportunities than men to build trusting relationships with their physicians. Nonetheless, women were somewhat more likely than men in the panel to say they always or sometimes seek a second opinion -- 47% of women compared with 42% of men. Forty-six percent of women said they never seek a second opinion, compared with a slight majority of men (52%).

There is also a relationship between level of education and likelihood to seek a second opinion. About half of the panelists with college (50%) or postgraduate education (52%) said they always or sometimes seek a second opinion, while only 37% of those with a high school education or less said they seek second opinions.

On a related note, women and highly educated panelists were also more likely than their counterparts (men and those with less education) to use the Internet to seek medical information in the last six months, which helps bolster the idea that these people are particularly likely be more involved in their personal healthcare decisions.

One might expect people who characterize their health status as "fair" or "poor" to be more apt than healthy people to solicit second opinions -- just because they are more likely to have been diagnosed with a condition. But the panel data don't support this hypothesis; panelists who define their health as excellent or good were about equally likely as those who say they're in fair or poor health to always or sometimes seek second opinions -- 44% of those in good health said they've solicited second opinions, compared with 45% in fair or poor health.

Bottom Line

Few respondents always seek a second opinion for a diagnosis or medical treatment. The people who are most likely to seek second opinions are those who also tend to have the highest levels of involvement in healthcare decisions for themselves and their families. This finding suggests that the tendency to seek second opinions is in many cases based less on mistrust of physicians than on a patient's desire to fully understand and act upon the health issues he or she faces.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 4,984 adults in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 16, 2004, to Jan. 5, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±1.5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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