We doctors should probably always think the best of our patients, honoring and respecting them. But that can be hard sometimes, because they are a bunch of liars. Does this seem a bit harsh to you? Well, a recent review of studies on patient veracity reveals some striking findings.
As a youngster, George Washington famously chose to tell the truth rather than to prevaricate in the hopes of escaping punishment: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.” We don’t have many George Washingtons around these days.
We doctors should probably always think the best of our patients, honoring and respecting them. But that can be hard sometimes, because they are a bunch of liars. Does this seem a bit harsh to you? Well, a recent review of studies on patient veracity reveals some striking findings:
Doctors also lie. One-tenth of respondents in a survey of 1,800 physicians admit saying untrue things to patients, more than half have given patients unrealistically positive prognoses, and 20% don’t come clean about mistakes they have made because they fear malpractice suits.
A friend of mine, a high-ranking official in a professional medical society, once told me why his organization had stopped surveying its surgeons about their volumes and complication rates.
“Every time we’ve done a survey and compared it with operating room records, we’ve found that the surgeons claim they are doing three times the number of procedures they are actually performing,” he said. “And the complication rate is at least twice what my colleagues self-report.”
Many doctors do what I was taught as a medical student learning about physical diagnosis; they double the number of alcoholic beverages that a patient admits to imbibing. A dentist named Sam Weisz reports that he divides in two the number of times that his patients claim to floss their teeth. The sobering underpinning of these strategies is that, on average, we cannot trust our patients to be honest.
After a long day in the office, I had completed my usual daily hour-long exercise regimen, including 5 miles on the treadmill and 100 sit-ups. After a dinner of tasty salad (organic greens) and a glass of pomegranate juice, I flossed my teeth and settled down to ponder the implications of such shameless mendacity in the American public.
In my opinion, there are two major logical consequences from the fact that the Washingtonian obsession with truth is largely extinct:
‘I don’t smoke, Doc’ and other patient lies. Health and Wellness section, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 19, 2013.