When your doctor asks you if exercise regularly, do you assure her that yes, at least three times a week, 30 minutes each time? When it’s really more like once or twice a week, 20 minutes max?
Most of us have lied to our doctors at one time or another.
But guess what? Your physician can tell when you’re lying. In a study conducted by General Electric Co. with the Cleveland Clinic, 28 percent of those surveyed admitted to sometimes lying to their doctor or omitting information. But the health-care providers surveyed suspected worse: 77 percent said that one-fourth or more of their patients left out information or lied, and 28 percent estimated it was as many as half of their patients.
Many residents learn in training that if a patient says he has four drinks a week, it’s probably eight. The same thing for cigarettes and illicit drugs, as well as exercise.
What’s a lie?
According to a WebMD survey, which surveyed around 1,500 respondents on this issue, when patients don’t tell the truth, they don’t always think of it as lying. Only 13 percent of WebMD users say they have lied to their doctor. However, another 32 percent — nearly a third – admit to having “stretched the truth” with their health care providers.
This same study found that patients aged 25 to 34 are more likely to lie to their doctors than are patients 55 and older. Younger patients are more likely to lie about recreational drug use, sexual history and smoking than older patients are. Then there’s the question of alcohol: men are significantly more likely than women to lie about how much they drink: 24 percent vs. 15 percent.
What do we lie about?
Here’s what the WebMD survey shows:
1. Medication Adherence: 38 percent lied about following their doctors’ orders
2. Food and Exercise: 32 percent lied about their diet or about how much exercise they got
3. Cigarettes: 22 percent lied about smoking
4. Sex: 17 percent lied about sexual activity
5. Drinking: 16 percent lied about how much or how often they drink alcohol
6. Drugs: 12 percent lied about recreational drug use
7. Expert Advice: 7 percent lied about getting a second opinion
8. Alternative Medicine: 7 percent lied about taking herbs, supplements, or other therapies
9. Family: 6 percent lied about their personal or family history
10. Symptoms: 2 percent didn’t tell their doctors about some of their symptoms — or exaggerated their symptoms
Scott Simon was interviewing the author Karen Russell earlier this month on NPR. When he asked her if she writes every day, she responded, “I always lie about this – like when you go to the doctor and he asks if you exercise every day. and you say, yes, sure.”
“I really try to write every day,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s my favorite thing to do, so it’s usually not too, too hard.” Then she caught herself, and laughed: “As soon as I said that, I was like, ‘You dirty liar!’
Why do people lie to their doctors?
Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, who has caught parents lying on issues where they disagree such as how long babies should use pacifiers, believes parents probably lie or omit information when they feel like they might be judged.
Other physicians believe that patients don’t want to disappoint doctors, or that they are embarrassed. Then there’s the fear of electronic medical records or information being communicated to employers or insurance companies.
From The Wall Street Journal:
‘It’s just human nature that patients want to please doctors.’ —Kevin R. Campbell, a cardiologist in Raleigh, N.C.
Doctors say omitting important information or lying can lead to the wrong treatment, medicine or even diagnosis.
Jeffrey Cain, a family doctor in Denver, had a patient whose blood-pressure medication didn’t appear to be working, so he changed the prescription. “What he hadn’t told me was he wasn’t actually taking his blood pressure medicine,” Dr. Cain says.
The patient read a story about heart disease that scared him and then started taking all his medications—new and old. His blood pressure dropped so low that he passed out, Dr. Cain recalls.
In some cases, Dr. Cain says, patients are lying to themselves. They want to project to their doctor the image they want for themselves. Sure, I’m watching what I eat, Doc. Yes, I exercise regularly.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s the doctor who is not entirely truthful. A survey of 1,800 doctors published last year revealed that just over one-tenth of them had not been entirely honest with a patient in the previous year. What did they do? Over 50 percent had described a prognosis as not as bad as it really was, and around 20 percent lied about a mistake they had made, for fear of being sued.
Bottom line: it’s dangerous to not be upfront with your doctor. How can you hope to get the best possible treatment if you’re not telling the truth? Maybe you’ve mastered the art of lying to yourself, but why not be honest with your doctor?
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