Employers: Include Second Opinions in Your Cancer Benefits

second opinions are important in cancer care

Second opinions in cancer care

On the surface, the medical field seems like one that should be fairly cut and dried. It’s science, after all, and facts are facts. But ask any healthcare professional and you’ll discover there’s a surprising amount of room for individual interpretation in medicine. Yes, it’s a science—but it’s also an art. That’s why second opinions are so important, especially when it comes to best practices for cancer care.

What exactly is a second opinion?

The term itself is pretty self-explanatory. It’s when a patient gets a diagnosis and/or treatment plan from their current doctor and decides to approach a separate doctor to review their medical records and make a judgment.

This isn’t about undermining the skills and expertise of an existing doctor but rather is a chance for patients to do their due diligence, confirm a prognosis, gather more information, and better understand their options.

Are second opinions common for cancer treatment?

Patients can seek a second opinion for any type of medical concern, but there are certain fields where they’re more common. According to the American Journal of Medicine, the field of orthopedic surgery sees the most second opinions. However, that’s closely followed by oncology.

People with chronic conditions (cancer is considered a chronic disease) are more likely to pursue input from another doctor. In fact, breast cancer is the most common condition in women who seek a second opinion, with prostate cancer being the most common impetus for men to do the same.

But even so, second opinions aren’t all that prevalent, with only 16% of cancer patients seeking another doctor’s judgment on their diagnosis. Several factors might prevent people from taking these extra steps, but time and health insurance concerns can be major barriers, in addition to many patients worrying about offending their original oncologist.

(FYI: Partnering with Carrum for cancer benefits gives employees access to a second opinion program, where experts can review their diagnosis and treatment plans).

Why do second opinions matter for cancer care?

Getting a second opinion adds another step, but it’s well worth it for the benefits it can offer, including:

  • Accurate diagnoses: A second opinion might seem like a formality, but research shows that it actually changed the diagnosis for 43% of breast cancer patients. In a separate study, discrepancies in medical opinions had a potentially major impact on patient outcomes in an alarming 58% of cases. Inaccurate diagnoses can lead to unnecessary tests and procedures, delayed treatments, prolonged illness, and emotional turmoil.
  • Effective treatment: A more accurate diagnosis usually translates to a more suitable and effective treatment plan. Additional research shows that second opinion consultations can offer “treatment de-escalations with corresponding reductions in expected short- and/or long-term morbidity.” Put simply, better treatments with better results.
  • Reduced costs: With a second opinion, patients are less likely to engage in unnecessary tests and procedures that add to the treatment price tag. Additionally, they might uncover more cost-effective treatment options. Second opinions have proven to not only improve patient outcomes but also reduce cancer care costs.
  • Increased confidence: Cancer is a heavy and life-changing diagnosis that often requires a long, potentially harrowing, and expensive treatment plan. A second opinion can provide much-needed peace of mind and patient confidence in a situation that otherwise feels out of control.

It’s proof that gathering additional insight from another doctor can do more than confirm an original conclusion—it can have a meaningful impact on the patient’s diagnosis, treatment plan, and results.

Real-life examples of why a second opinion matters

Statistics and studies are compelling evidence, but it’s the real people and stories—like those of the two Carrum members below*—that emphasize the importance of second opinions.

Ellen came to Carrum Health with a diagnosis of breast cancer. After a thorough diagnostic review with one of our virtual cancer guidance partners, she learned that she did not, in fact, have cancer. Her original diagnosis (which she received before reaching out to Carrum) was incorrect. Connecting with Carrum saved her the trouble—and cost—of going through treatment she didn’t need.

Leonard’s surgical oncologist thought a mesothelioma diagnosis was impossible due to the tumor’s location. Leonard reached out to Carrum Health, where our partner’s sub-specialized pathologists and radiologists reviewed tissue specimens and imaging results. They verified that Leonard did have pleural malignant mesothelioma with lymph node involvement, an extremely rare form of cancer.

With a proper diagnosis, Leonard was able to pursue highly specialized treatment—treatment that would have been further delayed or missed completely if he didn’t get a second opinion from Carrum’s cancer care network.

How can employers empower members to get a second opinion?

A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming enough without having to navigate a complex process to get the necessary information and resources. Here are a few steps employers can take to make a second opinion feel like a natural next step rather than another obstacle:

1. Promote comprehensive second opinion services

Partnering with a cancer care center of excellence program like Carrum Health gives employees access to virtual expert advisory reviews with convenient and hassle-free scheduling.

Make sure to proactively promote this service to all employees so they’re aware of it—even if they or their dependents don’t have a cancer diagnosis or if they haven’t notified HR of their cancer diagnosis (which they aren’t obligated to do).

2. Educate employees second opinions, including how to get one

Knowledge is power. The more employees understand about second opinions the more empowered they’ll feel to seek them.

Provide relevant content, resources, and training to employees. Talk through the process, address common misconceptions, and remove some of the mystery. For example, employees might not be aware that many second opinions can happen virtually without another visit to a doctor’s office.

3. Proactively detail what’s covered (or not)

While you’d like to think that their health alone is top of mind for employees who receive a cancer diagnosis, unfortunately, money carries a lot of weight too. Cancer comes with a large financial burden and, believe it or not, a patient’s level of financial stress is a predictor of overall survival.

Ease some of their concerns by offering as much transparency as possible about whether your medical plan will cover second opinions (and if it needs to be in-network), if they have access to a cancer center of excellence program that will offer a second opinion at little or no out-of-pocket cost, and how to use their FSA or HSA funds if applicable.

4. Emphasize scheduling flexibility

Lack of time can be a major barrier to second opinions. Reiterate flexible scheduling options to employees so they feel supported in taking the time they need to pursue another medical opinion.

Second opinion, first priority

You’ve likely heard that two brains are better than one and that holds true in medicine—especially in cancer care. Yet many patients are hesitant to seek out additional insights and guidance.

By empowering them with information, encouragement, and access to convenient and high-quality care, you can support an employee who has cancer as they gain the clarity and confidence they need to navigate their cancer journey.


*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only. No material is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.