Survey finds 23% of patients have lied to their doctor — but why?

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Twenty-three per cent of people have lied to their doctor, a new survey has found.

Among the most popular topics people say they fib about are smoking (46 per cent), exercise (43 per cent), drinking habits (38 per cent) and sexual partners (29 per cent).

The survey, conducted by life insurance company TermLife2Go, collected responses from 500 people — and the results provide an eye-opening glimpse into the average doctor-patient relationship.


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The results reveal an interesting breakdown between genders: 50 per cent of men say they’ve lied about alcohol, compared to 32 per cent of women. However, more women (33 per cent) lied about sexual partners than men (21 per cent).

This could be because of “norms for men and women” set up by society, Dr. Clark Madsen said in the report.

“They’ll tell you what they think you want to hear and they base that off of culture norms,” he said.

“What men and women see as acceptable behaviour is different.”

Age also proved to have an effect on the types of lies people tell. Patients older than 35 are more likely to lie about exercise habits, while patients younger than 25 are more likely to lie about smoking.

Why do people lie?

When asked why they lie, respondents provided a wide range of reasons: to avoid discrimination (31 per cent) and to be taken more seriously (22 per cent) were the most common.

According to the report, one man said he lied to his doctor about alcohol consumption to avoid a lecture about drinking too much.

There are many reasons someone might conceal the truth from their doctor, said Devon Greyson, assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Some lie, minimize or omit information because they don’t trust the doctor or the healthcare system,” Greyson said. For example, this can happen if a patient has had past negative experiences with biased providers.

Another reason people might be untruthful is to “get what they want,” said Greyson. “For example, emphasizing certain symptoms and downplaying others in order to get a certain test or prescription they feel would be beneficial.”

Ultimately, Greyson thinks it comes down to social desirability bias — “the human tendency to give answers we think will reflect well on us rather than the unvarnished truth.”

Exercise and smoking are prime examples of topics where social desirability bias can have an affect.

“We all know we should eat well, exercise, and refrain from smoking and heavy drinking, but lasting behaviour change in these areas is difficult,” said Greyson.

“To reduce the risk of the doctor either scolding or thinking poorly of them, as well as to avoid feeling bad about oneself, people will often portray their behaviour as healthier than it really is.”

Social desirability bias can also help explain why men and women lie about different things.

“Because women as a group experience more shaming about sexual activity, we would expect them to be less forthcoming about sexual risk behaviours even to their healthcare providers — and according to this recent report, that is what happens,” Greyson explained.

Lying can be dangerous

Lying to your doctor isn’t only a waste of time — it can also be dangerous for your health.

“It’s important to understand that your doctor has no other motives than to help you,” said Madsen.


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“We have the patient’s best interest at heart and will give you honest and useful information — but only if we have accurate data to help us make decisions.”

Greyson agrees, saying a lack of open communication between patients and health care providers can be detrimental to a person’s health.

“For example, with incomplete or wrong information, a health care provider may miss an important diagnosis or prescribe the wrong medicine,” she said.


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“In extreme cases, such as when a patient lies about being vaccinated for a disease, it can affect not only the patient’s own health, but potentially the health of others to whom they may spread illness.”

It’s important for physicians to avoid shaming patients for unhealthy behaviours, said Greyson.

“Health care providers can encourage patients to share truthful information by … approaching the patient-provider relationship as a ‘therapeutic alliance’ in which providers can partner with patients to improve their health.”

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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