White Coats, White Lies: How Honest Is Your Doctor?

We rank physicians among the most trustworthy members of our society, but a new survey finds the respect isn't always mutual.

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Is your doctor telling you the truth? Possibly not, according to a new survey in Health Affairs of nearly 1,900 physicians around the country.

The researchers found that 55% of doctors said that in the last year they had been more positive about a patient’s prognosis than his medical history warranted. And 10% said they had told patients something that wasn’t true.

About a third of the MDs said they did not completely agree that they should disclose medical errors to patients, and 40% said they didn’t feel the need to disclose financial ties to drug or device companies.

Really? The study’s lead author, Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, a professor medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, was surprised to learn how mendacious her colleagues were. “Some of the numbers were larger than I expected they might be,” she says.

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Why the white lies? In some cases, Iezzoni says it was for self-protection. Nearly 20% of the doctors admitted that they didn’t disclose a medical error to their patients because they were afraid of being sued for malpractice.

In other cases, it may have been for the patient’s benefit. MDs might spare an anxious patient from hearing about the slightly abnormal results of a lab test, for example, if it has no impact on the patient’s health. Conversely, the doctor might exaggerate a health result in hopes of motivating a patient to take better care of himself.

Doctors who sugarcoat patients’ prognoses may do so to soften the blow of bad news and help them remain hopeful about their potential recovery. Also, short office visit times may preclude the long and emotional discussions that accompany the delivery of difficult medical news, so doctors may say what they can to avoid causing the patient pain.

“The [doctor-patient] relationship is a human interaction, and physicians are human too,” says Iezzoni. “They don’t want to upset their patients, they don’t want their patients to look unhappy or burst into tears. But they also need to be professionals, so they need to tell themselves that if there is a difficult truth they need to tell their patient, they need to figure out a way of communicating that effectively.”

That’s critical for doctors to appreciate, because as well-intentioned as their fibs may be, other studies consistently show that patients prefer the truth, and would rather hear harsh news than remain ignorant about a dire medical condition. Being fully informed is a way that patients can cope and prepare for whatever might occur.

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As for the failure to disclose medical errors, Iezzoni says doctors’ fear of malpractice suits may often be misplaced. Studies suggest that in cases where physicians are open about their mistakes, patients are more likely to be understanding and refrain from suing.

So how can doctors learn to be more honest with their patients? More training about how to communicate with people about their health is critical — especially when it comes to delivering bad news. Patients also need to be clear and firm about how honest they want their doctors to be. Communication is a two-way street, after all, even in the doctor’s office.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

3 comments
never-lie
never-lie

Doctors can and do lie. I caught one of my doctors in a lie. People can only truly heal with truth. Good, bad or indifferent. No doctor will know you better then yourself. Lies hurt and create more problems or divert from root problem. It is hard because doctors are a dime a dozen. It is scary and difficult to find a good one but they do exist. NEVER TAKE WHAT THEY SAY AS FACT WITHOUT DOUBLE OR TRIPLE CHECKING. A doctor who lies and does things improperly never want you to get or be better. Take notice more are cropping up. By checking it takes a lot of extra time but worth it and you will know the ones who do lie. In some cases you can not heal without one. ALWAYS BE CHECKING AND DOUBLE CHECKING WHEN DEALING WITH A MEDICAL ISSUE. I know people who have been hurt and was hurt myself. A good doctor never lies to patient and if you discover one who lies and you catch it make sure to, report and tell. Honesty is best policy and builds trust and confidence. That can not be built on a lie. In fact, it makes and keeps people sick.

1neekehurley
1neekehurley

other studies consistently show that patients prefer the truth, and would rather hear harsh news than remain ignorant about a dire medical condition. Dire to me means could cause death. Would want to know if I have this type of condition So I can correct it and work with the Doctor or Medical team to better my health.



never-lie
never-lie

If you suffer greatly from lie. GET AN ATTORNEY. SOME DOCTORS ARE VERY BAD. It is a federally regulated field but police, boards, DEA and so on do not keep people safe and fail miserably and prove they are a waste in the system. Everyday this happens our goverment lines that we all pay greatly for in many ways fail. It is sad that should not happen as much as it does. What would happen if we all suddenly failed to pay them for not checking and doing their job properly? Finding an attorney can be like a doctor. It all falls under mal- practice. I found some attorneys like to play the money game. They are able to do a lot but do nothing even when they have pertinent documents. Charge a ton of money for nothing. Do not pay unless they can get you paid.