No matter how honest you are in everyday life, chances are you’ve told a lie in the exam room. Maybe self-medicating with CBD didn’t seem relevant to your visit, or you feared a lecture if you admitted that walking the dog is your main form of exercise. Or you reflexively shook your head no to a question about smoking because, c’mon, you’re not a full-fledged smoker. Regardless, you’re not alone.
In two recent surveys of more than 4,500 adults, researchers found that 60 to 80 percent of respondents have not been completely transparent with a clinician at some point. “It’s hard for any patient to admit things they might not be proud of,” says lead study author Angela Fagerlin, department chair of population health sciences at the University of Utah and a Veterans Affairs research scientist. “But if your goal is to be healthy, it’s usually best to admit what you’re hesitant to say.”
Patients omit information and twist details about their health habits for different reasons. Here are some of the more common reasons for those white lies — with expert insights to help you stay honest during your next appointment.
You don’t want to be judged
Among survey respondents, the most common reason for lying to a doctor was a fear of being judged or lectured. That’s precisely why Mike Robinson, 53, a blogger in Santa Barbara, California, says he failed to disclose his medicinal use of cannabis oils to a new oncologist.
Robinson was only seeing her for diagnostic work, as he’d decided to fight his cancer with cannabis and decline other treatment recommendations. Still, he suspected the oncologist would judge his nontraditional treatment plan and push him to try chemotherapy, so he filled out his patient intake form without mentioning his physician-prescribed THC oil.
Robinson’s seemingly minor omission had a snowball effect. One thing led to the next, and he wound up with a 30-day coverage suspension for treatment noncompliance. If he’d explained at the outset that he did have medicine, albeit not the traditional kind, Robinson says, he would have avoided the insurance drama: “Had I just filled out the intake form without that omission about what I was using for medicine, things would have gone smoothly. Very simply put, lying to your doctor only hurts you.”
“It’s human nature to try to look good; therefore, it’s very easy to withhold information that we [perceive] as negative,” says Setareh Alipourfetrati, a resident physician at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s hospital in New York City. “But your doctors are only as good as the information they have. By holding back details, you’re cheating yourself.”
And with the rising use of shared electronic health records systems, seemingly minor lies can stick with you over time. “The data that you are not truthful about or hold back might be assumed as accurate by your future providers and in different settings,” Alipourfetrati says.
Think of your physician like a mailman, she suggests: “You don’t give the wrong address for your mail delivery just so that the mailman thinks you live in a better neighborhood. What you want is for your providers to deliver the best medical care tailored to your needs. To do that, they need to know you and your needs.” Medical professionals can help patients by creating a trusting and equal environment in the exam room. “I also always encourage and thank patients who [disclose] difficult-to-share information and tell them how helpful it is for me to know the truth,” she adds.
The idea that patients conceal unflattering details to skirt judgment is supported by psychological research. As social psychologist Lauren Howe explained in a piece for The Paper Gown, her work suggests that many patients view doctors as judgmental because they assume healthcare professionals are beacons of healthy living. But that’s not the case: On average, doctors are in pretty average health.
In the end, keep in mind that providers want to help. They’re asking questions to gather information, not to rate you. As Fagerlin puts it, “They see a whole spectrum of people and spend their time thinking about how to make you the healthiest you they can.”