Health and Science

Health buzz: what patients lie to doctors about

US News & World Report
David Oliver
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Going to the doctor can be a stressful experience, so much so that you may feel put on the spot when you get asked an uncomfortable question. In some cases, you might even tell a white lie to try and please them.

Say your doctor asks you how many beers you drink a day. If you say three, your doctor might think you're drinking three standard cans. But if you're referring to 40-ounce tallboys, you're not exactly telling the whole truth.

Doctors caution that patients should feel comfortable going to their doctor, and if they can't be open and honest, they should seek medical treatment elsewhere.

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What do patients lie about more often? First off, Dr. Gary LeRoy, an Ohio-based family physician, doesn't like the term "lie" at all. He views statements like these as lies of omission because people want to see themselves as good patients. They want to be respectful of their physician and aim to say what they think their doctor wants to hear.

These responses could also be distorted versions of the truth. LeRoy says that during his training, he was told to double whatever patients told him about their smoking or drinking habits to likely get closer to the truth. In practice, he has patients who always say they're cutting down on smoking, but since he's known them for decades he knows they're distorting the truth. He tries to turn these experiences into teachable moments for the patient.

Dr. Victoria Manax, the Dallas, Texas-based chief medical officer at the nonprofit Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, concurs that it's typically taboo subjects like alcohol, smoking and sex that patients tend to feel uncomfortable about. She also points out that these patients aren't blatantly lying, per se, and that it's up to doctors to ask questions a certain way to best gather information. This could involve asking patients specific types of follow-up questions. If you know a patient smokes, you could ask questions like: Would you say you smoke in social situations or at regular times? Do you smoke more when you feel stressed?

A patient is going to actually want to answer the questions more precisely and accurately if they don't perceive judgment from the doctor, Manax says.

"Understanding what makes that patient feel safe is the way you need to approach things," she adds. She also says that lying to your doctor could potentially have consequences to your health.

"Distortions of facts by the patient can result in a missed diagnosis or a misdiagnosis by the physician," LeRoy adds.

He says the cases where patients actually lie are often related to drugs: seeking them to sell or abuse themselves. He tries to have the facts at his disposal with these individuals – i.e. refer to a prescription monitoring system where he can find out if they've been getting medications from other sources. He'll even go so far as not seeing them as a patient any longer, and will warn patients that it doesn't look like they can have a healthy physician-patient relationship if it's going to start out with lies.

This isn't the case for patients who might be embarrassed about sexual preference or drug use, for instance; he wouldn't dismiss patients because they're afraid to tell the truth.

The big takeaway here? Being as open and honest with your doctor as possible is the best way to go for a successful relationship.