Who Let The Doc Out?! #025: Why are you lying to your doctor?

Hospital visits, no matter the reason, are seldom a pleasant experience for many. Some people simply cannot bear the thought of spilling their most intimate secrets and being at their most vulnerable in front of a stranger in a white coat, even for the sake of their health.

In fact, a 2015 study found that over 30% of people cited their discomfort with seeing physicians as one of their main reasons for avoiding the hospital. Sometimes, a person is unable to weasel their way out of a dreaded visit to the doctor. But once they have arrived at the hospital, they may still lie to the doctor. Patients lying to their doctors is not new.

A study published in the JAMA Network Open journal revealed that a whopping 60 to 80% of patients have lied to their doctors at one point. This may seem counterintuitive, as the role of a doctor is to diagnose and treat a patient depending on their clinical assessment as well as the patient’s account of their own symptoms and medical history. Lying to your doctor seems a little like lighting a candle when your house is on fire. So why do people do it?

Why do people lie to the doctor?

Every one of us has probably told a white lie or at least withheld some information from their doctor. Simple lies and omissions like whether or not you had something to eat prior to the visit, whether you took your medication as prescribed, or even how often you exercise can hardly be assumed to be part of some nefarious plot to intentionally mislead your doctor.

So why do some patients lie? One reason is because of embarrassment. Imagine having to admit to a stranger that you forgot to brush your teeth or you skipped a shower today.

Worse still, imagine being a nineteen-year old boy at the doctor’s with your mother, faced with the question of whether or not you are sexually active. Surely, nothing can be more mortifying. Doctors are therefore tasked with the responsibility of creating a conducive environment in which their patient can feel safe enough to answer certain invasive questions.

Another reason patients lie to the doctor is that they don’t want their doctor to think poorly of them. Certain questions regarding a person’s health may force the person to reveal that they are not being the most responsible with their health. It can be hard to admit to your doctor that you emptied several bottles of wine over the course of a few days because you were nursing a breakup or had been laid off, especially if this is a doctor you see regularly.

Some people worry that revealing their poor health habits may lower their doctor’s opinion of them or even affect the kind of medical attention they receive. Sadly, these fears are not unfounded. One of the major issues plaguing healthcare is implicit bias among physicians which can have a negative effect of how adequately certain patients receive treatment.

Other reasons include a desire to avoid lectures, attempting to reduce medical expenses by omitting certain health issues, or even when they disagree with the physician’s diagnosis.

What can go wrong?

Lying to your doctor can have disastrous consequences for your health. Without the full picture of your health status, your doctor may prescribe a wrong treatment plan.

For example, if you lie about taking your medication religiously when it’s slipped your mind to do so one or twenty times, they may prescribe additional medication under the false impression that the one you’re on isn’t working. Leaving out bits of information like when you last ate may seem trivial, but they can be the only thing between you and a catastrophe.

Fasting before a surgical procedure requiring sedation, for instance, is advised to prevent the patient from aspirating food contents in the event that they vomit, which can happen after induction of anaesthesia. If you lie about having had something to eat the night before, your doctor may go ahead with the procedure and thus unknowingly put you at risk.

Overall, the patient-doctor relationship is one built on mutual trust, knowledge, regard, and loyalty. Honesty is important in ensuring the patient receives optimal treatment. If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to tell your doctor certain things about yourself, it may be a sign that this relationship has broken down and either needs to be fixed or ended.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan