How to Fire Mom's Doctor, or Get a Second Opinion

Nearly all of us have at some time second-guessed a doctor's opinion, either regarding our own health or that of our elders.

Sometimes we do this out of personal knowledge, as was the case with a reader, a registered nurse, who questioned a medication for her mother's Alzheimer's Disease. Sometimes we have a gut feeling that a doctor may not be taking our situation, or our elder's, seriously. And sometimes we actually doubt the doctor's ability.

Whatever the case, we do have the right to question a doctor's advice or diagnosis, ask for an explanation, and if we aren't satisfied, look for a second opinion.

But the issue becomes more complicated when we question a life-long family doctor that our elders trust.

Many of our parents have been seeing the same physician for decades. In their view, the doctor is "just fine." And probably, the doctor has been fine for their run-of-the-mill ailments.

However, the doctor is likely not a specialist in diagnosing dementia and may not be well trained in caring for aging patients in general, or helping them have the best quality of life. Moreover, some family doctors still believe that many signs of dementia are "natural aging" and tell their patients, who may be at a point where early intervention could be helpful, that they are just getting old.

Although you don't want to offend a doctor who has taken care of your family for years, remember that any good physician will gracefully refer you to another if you ask for second opinion (and if not, you may want to rethink your relationship). Here's how to make the approach:

  • Be frank, but courteous. Make a positive statement, such as, "Doctor, you've helped us for so long and you know us so well that I hate seeing anyone else, but I do think I need (or Mom needs) a specialist. Could you please refer us to a specialist in this field? Maybe it's overkill, but this feels important."
  • If you are worried about a prescribed medication, talk with your pharmacist, who understands side effects and interactions. Although the pharmacist is unlikely to say the doctor is wrong, if he or she catches a possible interaction or problem, you can use this to open the discussion with the doctor. If anything about the medication still makes you uncomfortable, be polite but firm and request a second opinion.
  • Take notes about anything positive or negative that you observe after taking medication, and tell your doctor if you think you or your loved one is on the wrong drug. Doctors are more likely to listen to your objections if you write them down, such as "Dad gets paranoid just 20 minutes after a dose." (This happened to my dad and I spoke up. The medication got changed so we didn't have to find another doctor.)
  • Remember that, in the end, you are a consumer. Your doctor is a provider. We are smarter and more educated about health care now than we were in the past. Also, doctors are more pressed for time and expect us to be a partner in our care. If the doctor you or your loved ones are seeing is completely against another opinion being sought, perhaps it's time to change doctors anyway.
  • Don't forget that it's your duty to find the best treatment for you and your vulnerable elders. That is more important than hurt feelings—and a good doctor will get over any perceived rejection very quickly.
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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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