home icon

Stop Lying to Your Doctor

Withholding information, denying symptoms or flat-out deceiving your physician is a prescription for trouble

By Gina Roberts-Grey | October 23, 2012

If you've fibbed to your doctor about your health habits or how faithfully you've followed his or her guidance, you're far from alone. In a recent national survey by Synovate, 52 percent of women admitted they had lied to their health care providers. But just because most people do it, that doesn't make it OK.
 
(MORE: The Truth Is, Lying Makes You Sick)

It seems obvious, but lying to the doctor can be hazardous to your health, says Elif Oker, medical director at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. "Doctors make decisions about diagnosis and treatment based on what patients tell them," she says. Incomplete information can lead to delayed treatment, unnecessary suffering and avoidable complications.
 
Why We Lie

Shame and embarrassment top the list of reasons why patients stretch the truth in the examination room, Oker says. But while "the truth may feel embarrassing to discuss," she says, "patients should find comfort in knowing that doctors are professionals. There is virtually nothing you can say that a good doctor hasn’t already heard."
 
A doctor's job is not to judge you but to heal you, adds social worker and Alzheimer's Association consultant Jennifer FitzPatrick, the author of Your 24/7 Older Parent. “If you are uncomfortable talking openly," she says, "or if you feel like your doctor is judging you, it might be best to find another doctor you are more comfortable with.”

4 Common Lies and How They Hurt Us
 

1. "Sure, I’m taking my medication." When doctors ask if you’re taking your meds as prescribed for hypertension, diabetes or other chronic conditions, they're not being nosy. If your condition has not improved but you haven't taken your medication properly, the doctor's next steps might be very different (and less severe) than if you had taken drugs as prescribed.

And when doctors ask for a detailed list of all the prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements you take regularly, it's not to judge your vitamin or pain-relief routines. Failing to disclose what you're taking, or lying about it, Oker says, "may cause potentially fatal drug interactions or the failure to identify potential side effects" when doctors prepare new prescriptions for you.
 
(MORE: Get Your Pharmacist on Your Health Team)
 
Financial concerns sometimes drive people to lie about medications, especially older patients who may not be able to afford their drugs, but tell doctors they've been taking them. Family caregivers should know all the prescriptions their loved ones are supposed to take and, if finances are a concern, talk to doctors about free samples, a switch to generics or more affordable meds or alternative payment plans. But the doctor can help only if he or she knows the truth about a patient's issues with following regimens or paying for pills.

2. "Nope, nothing else to report." Lies of omission are perhaps the most common, and most dangerous, lies between patients and doctors. For some of us, the goal of a checkup is to make a clean getaway with no bad news. That's doable if you don't tell the doctor all that you're experiencing. But it's likely to come back to haunt you later.

To be sure, many doctors don't ask enough questions or extract sufficient information from their patients. In those cases, patients need to speak up for themselves — but many resist raising personal issues because they are intimidated by the doctor, determined to keep some things private or simply shy.

If you understate, or don't report, persistent aches and pains because you think they're a natural part of aging, you limit your doctor's ability to detect and diagnose issues as serious as angina, kidney stones, heart disease or a bone tumor. And if you don't tell your doctor that you have a glass of wine each night, your reticence can wreak havoc if you’re prescribed a medication that requires limiting alcohol consumption. Patients keep such information to themselves "out of fear their physician will be angry with them," Oker says. "Rather than risk perceived judgment or embarrassment, they will simply leave out critical pieces of information."

To get past those issues, Oker advises you to see your doctor as a partner, not a judge. He or she is there to help you work through your health issues and find solutions you can live with.

3. "I've quit smoking." Some patients may not want to admit they're unable or unwilling to give up the habit. "Others lie about the number of cigarettes they smoke because they are in denial," FitzPatrick says. "They might say they don't actually smoke anymore because they only smoke a few cigarettes a day and they don’t count that as smoking.”
 
Aside from major health risks, like lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema), your doctor needs to know about any tobacco use because smoking may impair healing after surgery or if you’ve suffered a serious cut or other wound. “Smoking can also increase the risk of adverse side effects of some medications or impair the effectiveness of a drug,” Oker says.

When you're honest about tobacco use, your doctor should avoid laying on the guilt and instead guide you toward a cessation program "that will work best for you, based on your lifestyle," Oker says.
 
4. "My memory's fine." A natural resistance to having one's worst fears confirmed leads many people, especially seniors, to deny or play down lapses in memory or episodes of confusion. Older patients with mild or early symptoms of dementia are especially prone to withholding concerns, Oker says. “They know something is wrong, but don’t know exactly what so they lie about it because they fear someone taking away their autonomy," she says. "They want to keep driving or living independently."
 
(MORE: Checklists Can Change, and Even Save, Your Life)

But not all memory issues lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Some are brought on by temporary, treatable conditions. “A urinary tract infection or depression can cause cognitive and memory changes,” FitzPatrick says. Your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic to treat the former and the symptoms typically disappear. If you're dealing with an episode of depression, or even early-onset dementia, the sooner the issue can be recognized and addressed, the better, she says. "It allows your doctor to prescribe a medication that may help manage symptoms.”