Is Your Doctor a Big Fat Liar?

Illustration for article titled Is Your Doctor a Big Fat Liar?

We like to think that doctors are somehow superior to the rest of us. After all, doctor knows best, right? We want to believe that they are wiser, more skilled, more honest than we are—except a new survey finds that, in fact, they're not always as honest as you might think.


Researchers at Harvard Medical School surveyed almost 1,900 physicians from many different specialties. They were asked to rate their agreement with the principles outlined in the Charter on Medical Professionalism. While you might, in an ideal world, hope that all doctors agreed strongly with all the codes of conduct, that's not what the researchers found.

When it came to telling the truth, a majority of doctors agreed that physicians should "never tell a patient something that is not true," but about 17 percent did not completely agree. Eleven percent of doctors said they actually had told a patient something that wasn't true in the past year. Of course, it's hard to condemn this across the board without knowing what these lies involved—and this research didn't focus on that. So there's no way to gauge why these doctors decided to lie.

One very common form of doctor deception is spinning a patient's prognosis to be more favorable than it actually is. This survey found that 55 percent of doctors had done that in the last year. This seems more excusable, somehow, than outright lying because it involves the tricky business of giving or taking away hope, which can be a vital ingredient in a patient's recovery.

There is also the touchy topic of disclosing errors made during treatment. The survey found that 34 percent of doctors did not "completely agree" that they "should disclose all significant medical errors to affected patients." About 20 percent of the physicians said they had not "fully disclosed a mistake to a patient because they were afraid of being sued." That's not good, especially since it's been shown that filling patients in on errors in an upfront matter and apologizing right off the bat can actually reduce the likelihood that a lawsuit will be brought.

For the most part, thank God, it doesn't seem like most doctors are sneaky and trying to mislead you. Rather, it's that they're forced to navigate incredibly complicated scenarios all day long, and they sometimes miscalculate the right approach or they end up saying something the turns out not to be true. Can you really blame them? We all make mistakes at our job, and we don't always correct them in the most honest way possible. Can we expect more from doctors? I guess it depends on what's at stake in a given scenario. The researchers say they don't know the effect of these untruths, but they speculate they might make patients, "less able to make health care decisions that reflect their values and goals." And indeed, especially in the case of delivering an honest and accurate prognosis, that can make a big difference in how people choose to be treated.

Beyond making judgment calls during treatment, there are some other behaviors the survey uncovered which are pretty disturbing. First, 28 percent of doctors said they'd "intentionally or unintentionally revealed to an unauthorized person health information about one of [their] patients." What's up with that, doc? Not cool. Second, 35 percent of doctors didn't agree that they should "disclose financial relationships with drug and device companies to their patients." That, of anything, seems the most disturbing and nefarious because it can affect treatment options in ways patients might not even think to ask about.


If you don't like the idea of your doctor telling little white lies—or taking money from a pharmaceutical company behind your back!—you can do two things. One, you can try to go to women and minority doctors, because the survey found they were more likely to favor openness and honesty than white, male doctors were. The researchers speculate that this is because their minority status in the world of doctors means they feel more compelled to strictly adhere to professional codes of conduct. Of course, that's certainly not a foolproof method for finding an honest doctor. So the very best thing you can do is to be proactive about asking questions of whatever doctor you're seeing and not just assuming that whatever he or she says is a pure truth delivered straight from the mouth of a medicine God.

1 in 10 Doctors Admit Lying in the Past Year [LiveScience]

Image via Tyler Olson/Shutterstock.


Violet Baudelaire

Question - are there any statistics on the hospitals and environments where women and minority doctors tend to work and the fields they tend to work in, and that information versus how likely they are to be sued? I know it's stereotypical, but there is a belief out there that women and minorities tend to work in family and ob-gyn practice, and potentially I could see how they would disproportionately be likely to work in smaller, poorer, more minority areas. Poor people at an inner city hospital are going to be far less likely to sue, and not to sound absolutely horrible but the risks treating them from a malpractice standpoint are much, much lower. Similarly, I know that some fields - say, anesthesiology - have really high rates of malpractice suits and I wonder if the fields that tend to be women and minority dominated happen to have low rates. If any of this is true, then women and minorities are not necessarily nicer people*, but simply they work with more freedom to be honest without fear of repercussion.

*At least in this case. They may in fact be nicer people in general for working in these places and helping those who need it have good health care. Shout out to you, planned parenthood doctors who work for very little and see a lot of shit.