10 Most Common Lies We Tell Our Doctors (and 2 Lies Doctors Tell Us)

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.

Who lies?

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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Photo Credit: thinkstock


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

it seems pointless to me to lie to your doctor. How can they help you if you give them false or incomplete information?

Maricruz Lopez
Past Member 4 years ago

Very helpful thank you!

Betsy M.
Betsy M4 years ago

I thought of this article at the VA last week.
The MD wants to fill in he forms, so she asks a standard question.
I explain it does not apply to my situation, there is no way to answer..
She keeps repeating the question until finally she says, "none?" and I say "fine"
Although they frequently don't want real answers, the truth, or anything similar, I am sure she is somewhere with her buds shaking her head about those darn patients that don't tell the truth.
The problem with this is that when you are trying to solve a misidentified problem, no matter how brilliant a solution you have, it is FAIL.

Patricia Geraldes

Thanks for sharing.

Albert Wrzesinski

When I was diagnosed with a certain condition, I was given treatment that was simply ineffective. During my next visit I exaggerated my symptoms and the doctor gave me more radical treatment which worked. The condition was nothing serious, more of an annoyance than a threat to my health, so I wasn't afraid of the consequences of misleading the doctor.

Fay Wouk
Fay Wouk4 years ago

I find it hard to understand why anyone would lie to their doctor. How can you get proper treatment if you don't provide accurate information. It's so self defeating, it makes no sense.

Nessie Benjamin
Nessie B4 years ago

I don't lie about exercise to my doctor - that would be silly considering how much weight I've gained lately!!!

Alison A.
Alison A4 years ago

Thanks for posting.

Carole K.
Carole K4 years ago

I think those who said that they did not lie to their doctor are generally deluding themselves. Some of the information health care providers require is just plain none of their business, or CYA (cover your ass so you don't get sued); & they are often judgmental and condescending. I resent the typical attitude that the doctor knows best & is better qualified to make health care decisions than the patient him/herself. As this article briefly mentions, doctors are often not honest with their patients either. I avoid going to the doctor's office as much as I possibly can. Health care services are very overpriced & over-rated. YOU are your own best health care provider! Monitor your body signals every day, eat a healthy diet, get plenty of rest & check in again tomorrow............ Use doctors as a last resort if at all possible! (I realize that some conditions will not allow this, however.)

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

It's dangerous to lie to your doctor. How can he be expected to treat you if you don't tell the truth?