Your Doctor Is Lying to You

Patients lie to doctors; doctors lie to patients. Going for a checkup, it seems, is one giant exercise in falsehoods.

Do you lie to your doctor? I lie to my doctor. Not big lies, just little ones. And as it turns out, my doctor knows I lie. She counts on it. When I say I have one glass of wine a day, she doubles it to two. When I say I exercise three times a week, she looks at me and thinks: Yeah, right. But according to the Wall Street Journal, I don’t lie as much as my doctor thinks I do. And guess what? My doctor also lies to me.

In a 2009 patient survey, 28 percent admitted that they sometimes lie or leave out information when they’re talking to their doctors. But when doctors were asked how many of their patients lied or fudged, more than a quarter estimated that over half their patients were telling fibs. A separate survey revealed that young people ages 25 to 34 were more likely to tell their doctors lies than older patients (probably because the young ones have so much more to lie about). And either women are better liars than men, or doctors are less likely to challenge them, because guys were twice as likely to get caught telling medical falsehoods as women were.

Do these little lies matter? Sometimes. The WSJ story includes anecdotes about an anorexic who put rocks in her pockets before she stepped on a scale, and a patient who didn’t take his prescribed blood-pressure meds until a news story about heart disease scared him, whereupon he doubled down on them—and wound up passing out. So why do we tell untruths, at the risk of our health? I know why I do: I want my doctor to like me, and to think that I’m smart and well-informed. But I’ll also admit, it gives me pause to know that everything I confide in her is getting noted down in my electronic record. Will my employer find out what’s in there? Will our insurer? The government?

I’m lucky. I like my doctor. She’s the same age as I am. She has arthritis, just like I do. She’s pretty nonjudgmental, as physicians go. She always reminds me I need to lose weight, but she manages to do it in a chipper, encouraging way: “I think you could go off your blood-pressure medication if you could lose 30 pounds!” Still, she’s the one in the white coat, and I’m the one who’s naked underneath my paper dress. I feel the power differential. And—this is my hang-up, not any fault of hers—I want her to be proud of me. I want to be the good patient, not the bad.

Which is why I found it heartening that a different study in the journal Health Affairs found that more than half of all doctors admitted to presenting a diagnosis to a patient more positively than the medical facts deserved. Hey, how about that? My doctor could be lying to me. And chances are she’s anxious about me liking her, too.

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