Is your doctor being completely honest with you? Are you sure?
A new study, led by researchers from Harvard Medical School, indicates that some doctors refuse to tell their patients the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Results showed that at least one out of every ten doctors surveyed had lied to a patient in the last year alone.
Lies can include everything from neglecting to disclose a financial interest with a medical device or pharmaceutical company to omitting the fact that a medical error was made during the course of a patient’s treatment.
But here’s the real shocker: most of the nearly 1,900 doctors who participated in the survey said that it was important for physicians to be honest with their patients when it comes to things that may influence their outcome of their health care.
What could compel a physician to be less than truthful with their patients?
Tanvir Hussain, M.D., a cardiologist and adjunct professor of bioethics at the Pepperdine University School of Law feels that, though the reasons can be varied, malpractice lawsuits are often at the heart of a doctor’s decision to lie or withhold certain information from their patients. “Fears about professional livelihood are a major driver of the problem,” he says.
Mistakes (and apologies) can cost a doctor their job
When it comes to admitting mistakes, Hussain says doctors need to be careful because, in certain states, apologies can be used against a physician, if they are sued.
Medical students are often taught that lawsuits lurk around every corner, jeopardizing their future in the field.
It may seem like overkill to an outsider, but Hussain’s tenure as a law school teacher has only served to emphasize the constant warnings he received as a medical student. He says that simply being named in a lawsuit can have serious professional implications. A physician’s malpractice rates are sure to increase in response to an accusation. And, even if a doctor is able to clear their name, medical boards will often continue to be suspicious of them, and hospitals can refuse to hire them.
Another reason a doctor may not want to discuss a medical mistake is that it may not have actually been their fault.
Physicians are often tasked with informing a patient of a mistake that was beyond their control. Psychologically, this can be extremely unpleasant for someone who is endeavoring to provide the best possible care for their patients.
Should doctors be telling the truth more often? Continue reading to find out…
Are all disclosures really necessary?
Nearly two-fifths of the doctors surveyed in the Harvard study said that they didn’t think that their patients needed to know about a physician’s connections to medical device and pharmaceutical companies. As of right now, there are no rules governing the disclosure of such information to patients.
Hussain feels this figure reflects a current division in the medical community between those who think a doctor’s relationship with outside companies affects patient care, and those who don’t. He points out that there are viable ways to handle such admissions, such as including the information on a patient’s paperwork, but, he thinks that dealing with verbal disclosures could be tricky. “If the alternative is to open every patient introduction with, ‘Before we start, I should tell you this pen is from Pfizer, my coffee mug from Merck, Abbott provided lunch for the office today, and I got a grant from GlaxoSmithKline last month,’ I think anyone (patient or physician) would find that impractical and disconcerting.”
Ultimately, Hussain says that the majority of doctors won’t allow their relationship with a certain company influence their care decisions. However, he admits that some information regarding a doctor’s connections should be made available to patients.
Liar, liar, lab coat on fire
Some doctors are bullies, but a physician who tells a white lie here and there isn’t likely to have a major impact on the quality of care you receive. However, as Hussain points out, a pattern of untruthfulness can indicate that a doctor has a potentially dangerous personality. The physician who is comfortable with lying to those who have entrusted their health and well-being to them may also be more likely to take risks that could prove risky to their patients.
Spotting a fibbing physician can be nearly impossible, so if you’re worried that your doctor may not be telling you the whole truth, Hussain recommends first trying to obtain copies of your medical records. This can make it easier for you to seek a second opinion if you feel that your doctor is withholding important information.
The most important thing, is to try and develop a good rapport with your physician. Many people are scared to talk to their doctor because they view their relationship as one between a superior and a subordinate. Most experts however, say that an open dialogue between doctor and patient is key.
“A person should be more afraid of not speaking to them. They should be more concerned about the things they are not learning, the things that are not being explained to them,” says Kevin Jones, M.D., surgeon and researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. As the author of the book, What Doctors Cannot Tell You: Clarity, Confidence and Uncertainty in Medicine, Jones is an expert on the barriers that stand in the way of effective doctor-patient dialogue.