Do Patients Lie to Their Doctors?

Recent survey shows that 23% said they had lied to their doctor

By Barbara Pierce

Physician Amy Grace of Bassett Healthcare Network: “It’s important to be honest with your provider.”
Physician Amy Grace of Bassett Healthcare Network: “It’s important to be honest with your provider.”

“How much do you drink?” the doctor asked my husband. “Oh, a couple of beers every now and then,” he answered, as I struggled to keep quiet. I have read that proper information is necessary for addiction treatment at Emmaus Medical and Counseling. It should be the same here.

After the visit, I suggested it might be in his best interests to give her more accurate information.

The next time the doctor asked, he answered honestly. She suggested he try to cut back; he did. Happy ending to the story.

I mentioned this to my sister-in-law, knowing she drinks most evenings, occasionally to the point of passing out. No, she’s never talked with her doctor about drinking, she admitted.

“I figure the blood work she’s always collecting tells her and she’s never mentioned it.”

When I said blood work doesn’t show the amount of alcohol you’ve had the night before, she was surprised. But I doubt she’ll mention her drinking to her doctor.

I’ve sat with my daughter while she lied to the doctor about how much she smokes, with my ex-husband while he lied about smoking pot.

I’ve not been totally honest with doctors either, maximizing the amount of exercise I do and stretching the truth to claim to eat a healthy diet nearly always.

TermLife2Go, a company that helps consumers buy life insurance, asked 500 people if they lied to their doctor. Twenty-three percent said, yes, they had lied to their doctor, lied about smoking, about their exercise habits, about drinking, and sexual partners.

Reasons they gave for lying: to avoid embarrassment, to tell the doctor what they think he or she wants to hear. Others, overwhelmingly female, say they lie to avoid discrimination because of gender, race, obesity, sexual orientation.

Why be honest with your health care professional?

“We’re not judging you,” said William Ryan Jr., primary care medical director for the Mohawk Valley Health System. “We ask questions about drug and alcohol abuse, sexual activity and exercise habits, because we need that information to guide our decisions on the best possible ways to improve your overall health and well-being.”

“My decisions are based on a combination of diagnostic testing, physical examination and information the patient provides. If a patient isn’t forthcoming, it takes away a key factor in my ability to make a proper diagnosis and recommendation,” he added.

“Failing to provide your physician with the truth can result in an improper diagnosis or improper medications being ordered, which can end up being detrimental to your health,” he continued.

A patient’s social history includes questions about exercise, smoking, alcohol, drug and substance use and sexual practices, said Amy Grace, a primary care physician with Bassett Healthcare Network. “This is a very important part of your medical history.”

“It’s important to be honest with your provider about these items because we make important determinations about managing your health care based on your answers,” Grace said. “For example, if you’re a smoker, we can discuss options to assist with cessation, and offer lung cancer screening when appropriate.”

More men than women lie about their use of alcohol. Excess alcohol consumption can have a detrimental effect on your overall health and wellbeing, she explained. It also may impact which medications are safe for you to take.

More women than men lie about their sexual practices. Being honest about sexual practices is essential, so that we can discuss whether you need birth control, and we can address sexually transmitted infections, Grace added.

“Sometimes these topics are difficult to be honest about. But, it is so important because without honest answers we could be missing opportunities to help guide you to a healthier and longer life,” she said.

Being honest and accurate about all the medications you’ve taken, those prescribed, those over-the-counter, and those illegal, is critically important. Many ER visits and hospital admission happen because a physician prescribes a medication that interacts with the medications or substances already in your body, family medicine physician Clark Madsen, Ogden, Utah, told researchers.

“It’s important to understand that your doctor has no other motives than to help you,” he said. “We don’t work for the government trying to find misdeeds. The only time law enforcement is involved is when the patient is a harm to themselves or others. We have the patient’s best interest at heart.”

“If you aren’t honest with your doctor, you’ve wasted the main benefit of seeing us and the copay you paid to be there,” he said.

“The relationship between the provider and their patient is a partnership which needs to be rooted in mutual respect, honesty and trust.” Ryan said.

If you feel like you can’t be honest with your health care professional, for whatever reason, it might be time to consider a change. Having a primary care provider with whom you feel comfortable, connected and confident is essential for your health.