Why we lie to doctors

A close crop of a doctor in a white coat holding a blue stethoscope coiled in their hand.

Dec. 28, 2018—Most of us are guilty of lying to our doctors. That's according to a new study, which found that 60 to 80 percent of those surveyed admitted to withholding information that could be important to their health during doctor visits.

It's hard to admit we're not living a healthy lifestyle. So it's no surprise that the study found many of us are fibbing about our diet and the amount of exercise we're getting.

But when are patients most dishonest? More than a third of the study participants reported they didn't speak up when they disagreed with a doctor's advice. More than a quarter admitted they said nothing to their doctor when they didn't understand the directions they'd been given.

The truth about lying

The findings were published in JAMA Network Open and came from two groups who took a national online survey. The survey takers were given scenarios in which patients might feel like they want to hide their health behaviors from their doctors. The participants reported whether these scenarios had happened to them and, if they weren't honest, why.

So why did the patients lie? A majority of survey participants said they didn't want to be judged or lectured by their doctors. The other top four reasons included:

  • The patient didn't want to hear how bad a health behavior was.
  • The patient was embarrassed.
  • The patient didn't want the doctor to think he or she was difficult.
  • The patient didn't want to take too much of the doctor's time.

Honesty is the best policy

The study showed that doctors don't always get the information they need, lending credence to the conventional belief that doctors may need to adjust what patients tell them, to include doubling a patient's report of alcohol use and cutting in half the amount of reported exercise.

But lying to your doctor can bring serious health consequences. For example, your doctor needs to know what you're eating and what medication you're taking in order to help you with health problems. They need to understand your symptoms, thoughts and feelings to make proper diagnoses and treatment recommendations. The study highlights that the doctor-patient relationship needs open communication to maximize the benefits a doctor can provide.

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