Why people often lie to their doctor

Have you ever lied to your doctor or downplayed your symptoms? If the answer is yes, you're far from alone. A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Utah and others found that between 60% and 80% of people surveyed admitted to being less than honest with their doctors at some point. That's a huge problem.

In health care, trust is two-way street. You want to trust your doctor is providing you with the best care possible and providing you with all the information you need to make good health choices, but to do that, your doctor needs to trust you are giving them the whole picture - the honest picture - of your health.

Why people lie

There are all kinds of reasons why people lie or withhold information from their doctors. According to the Utah study, the most common reasons patients gave were:

• They did not want their doctor to judge them negatively.

• They did not want to be lectured on how harmful their behavior was.

• They were embarrassed.

Unfortunately, that same study showed people who were more seriously ill were the ones most likely to lie to their doctors.

Downplaying drinking habits

I have found that many seniors are hesitant to fully disclose behaviors such as smoking and drinking because they're ashamed of their habits.

One woman told me she drank one to two glasses of wine every evening to help her sleep. On the way out of her home, though, I noticed 10, liter-sized bottles of wine in her garage. That's a lot for someone who lives alone, doesn't entertain and is only drinking "one or two glasses" a day. Knowing how much and how often you drink can impact everything from how your doctor interprets results of a liver test to how they counsel you about medications they prescribe.

Getting accustomed to symptoms

Other patients may get so used to chronic conditions like pain or shortness of breath that they do not feel it warrants discussing with their doctor, especially if they are feeling better at the time of a doctor's visit.

I once had a client with a history of serious heart and lung problems. She was calling me every day complaining of shortness of breath, so I made an appointment with her pulmonologist to see her a week earlier than scheduled.

When I arrived to take her to the doctor's office, she appeared to be breathing easily on her oxygen, and she showed no distress. On the way to the doctor's office, she hedged about how bad her breathing had been lately, saying it was probably family stress that had gotten her worked up.

When we arrived at the doctor's office, she told him she was "the same" and needed prodding from me to tell the doctor about her recent complaints. As a result, he changed some of her medications. Her symptoms improved later that week, and she expressed thanks that I spoke up for her.

Making medication judgments alone

Not wanting to "bother" the doctor is another reason people fail to share information. Patients tell me all the time when I review their medications, "Oh, I ran out of that and just stopped taking it; I didn't think it was helping."

But if they feel a medication is ineffective, they should be discussing that with their doctor. The same is true if the side effects or the cost of the medication are problems for the patient. Of course, to do that, the patient has to feel comfortable going to their doctor with those concerns.

I had a man who stopped taking his medicines for Parkinson's after three months because he did not think they were helping him, and he did not like the neurologist's personality, so he never went back. His symptoms progressed to the point where he could barely walk. When I took him to another neurologist, he agreed to try the medicines again and noticed a drastic improvement in his symptoms within two weeks.

The new neurologist told him she was "delighted" with his progress, which reinforced the improvement he had previously been unable to notice on his own.

Not speaking up

A good doctor-patient relationship is key not just so patients feel comfortable sharing information about their habits or symptoms, but also so they're comfortable asking questions. Not letting a doctor know when you don't understand instructions or when you don't agree with their assessment can result in a problem lingering needlessly or a doctor frustrated that you "didn't follow instructions."

So, the next time you visit a doctor, be honest and forthcoming. If you're not honest at your appointments because your doctor seems overly judgmental or doesn't seem to listen when you do speak, then it may be time to find a new doctor.

If you just have trouble asserting yourself, consider bringing a trusted family member, friend or advocate to speak up on your behalf.

Remember, withholding information can be just as bad as lying about it. Tell the truth - the whole truth. You might find that honesty is the best medicine you need to live a healthier life.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, she recently founded Seniors Alone Guardianship & Advocacy Services (, a not-for-profit organization that serves the area's senior orphans. She also is the founder of NShore Patient Advocates, Contact her at (312) 788-2640.

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