Many consumers are lying to their doctors about important health information

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Researchers say many people are afraid of being embarrassed or judged by their doctors

Going to the doctor can be stressful for many people. The prospect of an uncomfortable medical procedure or the fear of getting bad news can make a trip to the doctor’s office an anxiety-provoking one.

However, based on a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Utah Health and Middlesex Community College, many consumers often lie to their doctors about certain behaviors in an effort to save face. According to the researchers, though consumers are mainly trying to stay in their doctors’ good graces, withholding information can be detrimental to their health.

“Most people want their doctors to think highly of them,” said Dr. Angela Fagerlin. “They’re worried about being pigeonholed as someone who doesn’t make good decisions.”

Telling the truth

To test how often consumers lie to their healthcare providers, the researchers evaluated two national population surveys that explored two different age groups -- one with an average age of 36 and another with an average age of 61.

The participants completed a survey that showed seven different situations where consumers might lie to their doctors. They included:

  • Not understanding the doctor’s instructions

  • Disagreeing with the doctor’s recommendation

  • Not exercising/not exercising regularly

  • Having an unhealthy diet/how unhealthy the diet was

  • Taking a certain medication

  • Not taking medication as instructed

  • Taking someone else’s medication

They then answered if they had been in those situations, how they handled it -- by either lying or answering honestly -- and why they responded the way they did.

The researchers found that most participants withheld at least one of the seven types of information from their doctors, and most people lied to avoid being judged for their behaviors, to not be lectured by their doctors, or out of fear of being embarrassed. The findings showed that women, young people, or those in poor health were the most likely to lie to their doctors.

“I’m surprised that such a substantial number of people chose to withhold relatively benign information, and that they would admit to it,” said researcher Dr. Andrea Gurmankin Levy. “We also have to consider the interesting limitation that survey participants might have withheld information about what they withheld, which would mean that our study has underestimated how prevalent this phenomenon is.”

Missing out on proper medical care

Dr. Fagerlin and her team are mainly concerned that patients won’t receive the proper medical care or treatment if they’re not being transparent with their physicians.

“If patients are withholding information about what they’re eating, or whether they are taking their medication, it can have significant implications for their health,” she said. “Especially if they have a chronic illness.”

The researchers are hoping to gain a better understanding of why this happens.In addition to repeating the study in a more comprehensive way, they are curious if some doctors can work to foster a more understanding environment and hopefully have fewer patients lie.

“How providers are communicating in certain situations may cause patients to be hesitant to open up,” said Dr. Fagerlin. “This raises the question, is there a way to train clinicians to help their patients feel more comfortable?”

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