A few months ago, Slate featured a bunch of articles from women explaining why they were opting to live child-free. One woman’s submission about getting her tubes tied at 26 was caught my attention. In the piece, the writer admits to committing a cardinal healthcare sin: She lied to her doctor to get the procedure done. And while for her, the ends seem to justify the means–many doctors just won’t perform a tubal on a young-ish woman–it got me wondering about doctors, patients, and the truth. Just how bad is an exam room fib? And, moreover, is there ever a good reason to lie to your doctor?
I put out a query to see if any doctors would speak up–and boy did they. And pretty much across the board, whether it’s an omission of a bad behavior (like smoking), a slight bend in the truth (like about how many sexual partners you’ve had) or an out-and-out lie (like about what you may or may not be on), the answer is (almost) always “No.” No, you should not lie to your doctor. Mostly because, well, you’re not a doctor.
“Unless the patient is a medical professional–and/or a specialist in the area being evaluated–the patient cannot determine what information may be significant in subtle ways. It is the role of the physician to sort out what information is important/significant, and what may not be particularly pertinent,” explained Dr. David Reiss, who specializes in psychiatry and ethics.
“Any time that a doctor has incomplete or false information, it increases the probability of problems that could have been avoided…For example, drug and food interactions are now understood to be so complex, that even whether or not a patient eats grapefruit or drinks grapefruit juice regularly can be important, since chemicals in grapefruit change the way the liver metabolizes certain medications, and can lead to inadvertent over dosage and serious side-effects.”
False information can run the gamut from whether or not a person smokes, to whether they’re on any medication or recreational drugs that may interact with other prescriptions, or even their history of pregnancy. But even little lies which may not seem like a big deal–like that you’re a regular gym rat, when you actually hit the gym less than once a month–can hide subtle clues that may help your doctor make critical decisions about your care.
Trust is paramount when it comes to your healthcare, and lying to your doctor undermines that trusting relationship. Think of it as the Golden Rule; if you want to be able to trust that your doctor will give it to you straight, you need to do the same for them. Dr. Joseph Shrand, Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and the Medical Director of CASTLE (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered), put it this way:
As a physician I never lie to my patients. I tell them “I will never lie to you. I will never bullshit you. I may say things you don’t want to hear but I’m going to say them anyway. And I just expect the same from you. Be honest with me and I will do my best to help you if you need help. But because I don’t lie I will believe what you tell me. If you tell me bullshit, I will believe you, treat you, and you will get bullshit treatment. You may wind up on medicines you don’t need, or not get medicine you do need. So never lie to me.”
Dr. Kevin B. Jones, author of What Doctors Cannot Tell You: Clarity, Confidence and Uncertainty in Medicine, agrees.
“Trust between a patient and a physician is absolutely critical.”