More than one in four patients lie to the doctor

But physicians overestimate how often patients lie to them

Physicians in training are quick to learn that when patients say they enjoy a certain number of drinks or cigarettes per week, the rule of thumb is to double it, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why? Because patients lie

According to a 2009 survey of more than 2,000 patients and 1,200 care providers, 28% of patients admitted to occasionally lying or not sharing information with their health care provider.

Common lies ranged from diet and exercise habits to sexual histories, medication adherence, and taking supplements, the Journal reports.

A 2004 online survey of 1,500 respondents by WebMD also found that patients ages 25 to 34 were more likely to lie than older patients, and that men were twice as likely to get caught lying than women.

The truth behind the lies

Be them blatant or white, patient lies are fairly common. "It's just human nature that patients want to please doctors," says cardiologist Kevin Campbell.

Common reasons for why patients lie include:

  • Patients' concern about electronic medical records or that employers, insurance companies, or some other authority will learn about their condition;
  • Parents worry that they will be judged by their child's pediatrician; and
  • Patients feel embarrassed or fear that they will disappoint their doctor.

According to one patient—who exaggerates her exercise regime—she lies to her doctors because she's lying to herself. "I convince myself that I'm going to [exercise three times per week] and the next time I go to a doctor it will be true," she told the Journal. "Hasn't happened in nine years."

Doctors warn that lying and omitting important facts can lead to poor treatment, wrong medicine, or an inaccurate diagnosis.

Physicians' own role in truth-telling

As a result, many physicians say they look for signs that a patient may be lying—such as pauses or inflections in their speech, avoiding eye contact, or other signs of anxiety. However, the survey found that physicians often underestimate their patients' integrity. About 77% of physicians estimated that a quarter or more of their patients lied or omitted facts and 28% believed that half or more of their patients did so.

Meanwhile, physicians aren't always innocent. A 2012 survey of 1,800 physicians published in Health Affairs last year found that more than 10% told their patients something untrue in 2011. More than half admitted that they described an overly optimistic prognosis, and about 20% admitted to not disclosing an error out of fear of litigation (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 2/18).

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