10 Lies We Tell Doctors and Why Those Fibs Are Dangerous

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Male doctor talking to patient
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Even if you’re honest in the rest of your life, the chances are decent that you lie to your doctor. A good many of us do. The lies we tell and information we fail to share can have serious consequences for our health. Surveys have found that:

  • Women lie the most: 30 percent — compared with 23 percent of men — admitted to withholding information or outright fibbing when talking with their doctor, according to a Kelton Global survey of more than 3,000 Americans for Zocdoc, an online health platform.
  • One woman in five told the Kelton pollsters she’d rather confess health secrets to her hair stylist or manicurist.
  • A WebMD survey (not available online) found men were more likely than women to lie about their drinking; younger patients — those 25 to 34 — are more likely to lie about recreational drug use, sexual history, and smoking, Physicians Practice magazine reports.

“I think many doctors would be surprised to hear they’re getting half-stories often because they haven’t left enough time to ask,” Zocdoc founder Dr. Oliver Kharraz said in a press release.

Lies you, too, may have told

The lies we tell our doctors are many, varied and imaginative. And, as with most human behavior, no matter how inexplicable it seems, there are reasons, and sometimes very good ones. Among the lies patients tell their health care providers:

1. “I haven’t had a cigarette in years”

Smoking has been so clearly linked to disease and ostracized publicly that people who do smoke may be disinterested in getting a lecture about it unless they’re ready to give it up. Twenty-two percent of the people WebMD surveyed confessed to lying to their doctors about smoking.

That’s too bad for a couple of reasons: 1) Smoking affects your health and mortality in ways you may never suspect (it ups the risk of eye disease and blindness, dental cavities and hearing loss, for a few examples) and 2) because physicians today have lots of help to offer patients who want to kick their addictions.

2. “I feel just fine”

People may play down worrying symptoms when they’re scared that they’ll be sent to a hospital or that they’ll get a diagnosis they don’t want to hear.

Some fail to report symptoms if they’re concerned that a negative note on their health record could affect eligibility for life insurance or long-term care insurance. People who’ve had seizures, memory problems or whose reflexes are slowing sometimes hold back for fear they’ll be required to stop driving.

Lying about symptoms — of heart trouble, for instance — can cost you your life.

3. “Doc, I’m really hurting”

Patients who are after something, like pain drugs, a handicapped-parking permit or the doctor’s signature on a disability claim, are notorious among health professionals for inventing symptoms and visiting emergency rooms with made-up complaints.

4. “I exercise like a fiend”

Lying about smoking, diet and exercise is common. Some patients lie rather than admit they are not following a treatment plan the doctor recommended. WebMD’s survey found 32 percent of patients admitted to lying about their diet or about how much they exercise.

For some it’s simple pride. Others lie because they’re embarrassed or want to please the doctor. But if your doc is telling you to get moving and you don’t, you may risk high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, anxiety, depression and even some cancers.

5. “Not me, I’m never depressed”

Many of us are private and feel unwilling to share personal information with someone we don’t know well, even if it’s our doctor. Mental health problems still can carry a stigma that keeps sufferers from discussing the pain.

CNN reports that 43 percent of California adults are likely to keep symptoms of depression to themselves when talking with a doctor. Silence reigns even among those who want help but are afraid they’ll be shut out of employment. Taking antidepressants, for example, may disqualify someone for jobs like driving a truck, flying a plane or operating heavy equipment. But the longer depression goes untreated, the harder it is to treat.

Depression even appears to injure the brain, Dr. Richard Kravitz, who teaches internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, tells CNN. “Delaying treatment is probably the worst thing a patient can do for their mental health,” said Kravitz, who is an author of the California study.

6. “Just some herbs”

The risk of setting off a dangerous drug interaction is one powerful reason not to lie to your doc. Physician and writer Patricia Elliot writes, in the journal Medical Economics (unavailable online):

Ray, 41, had high blood pressure. “Do you take any homeopathic remedies?” I asked. He said no. I waited for him to say more. “Well, just some Chinese herbs,” he confessed. When he stopped using the ephedrine-like herbs, his blood pressure returned to normal.

7. “Yep, that’s everything”

People are complicated, as we know. Some see more than one doctor because they see their health problems as unrelated or because they want to manage how much information each doctor receives. The dangers are serious, as Glen Stream, a primary-care physician with the Rockwood Clinic in Spokane, Washington, told Physicians Practice:

“Perhaps they’re taking a psychiatric medication that they don’t tell you about and you’re seeing them for their blood pressure. You could prescribe something that could have a potentially fatal complication.”

8. “Only one drink a day”

Alcohol use is a frequent source of patients’ lies. Usually, :whatever a patient tells [us] is half of what they actually do drink,” Dr. Brian Doyle of the UCLA School of Medicine says in this WebMD article.

Moderate alcohol use is no more than one drink a day for women and two for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which also defines heavy drinking, alcohol abuse and binge drinking here. Identify your own drinking pattern with this National Institutes of Health quiz and learn about “low-risk” drinking. In addition to the ravages of alcoholism, over-use can affect the brain, heart, liver, immune system and pancreas and contribute to a variety of cancers.

9. “I lead a pretty clean life … (today)”

Many a clean-living citizen has had a wild past. Your doctor deserves to hear at least some of it in order to accurately assess your health and look for potential problems. A history that includes using street drugs, risky sexual practices or sharing IV drug needles could mean that your symptoms are tied to liver trouble, like hepatitis C, or a hard-to-diagnose sexually transmitted disease, conditions that respond best to early intervention.

10. “I take my pills like clockwork”

Patients who don’t take the medicine they’ve been prescribed — maybe because they forget, or experience unwanted side effects, or just can’t afford to pay for the drugs — run the risk of getting a wrong diagnosis and of having needless and expensive testing because they fail to fess up. Failing to take antibiotics as prescribed, or stopping them too soon, can cause the medicine to stop working.

What lies do you tell your doctor. Share (the truth) with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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