The doctor-patient relationship, like any good relationship, is built on trust. After all, the patient is naturally at the mercy of their physician in most cases, because the physician is the expert. Sure, the patient should have the ultimate say in their care, but the information they are basing their decisions on typically comes from the physician, and they must trust that what they are being told is the truth. Unfortunately, a recent study by Lisa Iezzoni and colleagues finds that doctors aren’t always so honest with their patients.
In a survey of a representative sample of physicians, more than a third of doctors fail to completely agree with the statement “Physicians should disclose all significant medical errors to affected patients.” Nearly one-in-five fail to completely agree with the statement “Physicians should never tell a patient something that is not true.” That’s right, more than 17% of doctors felt that there were times when it was okay to lie to patients.
As for their actual behavior, 11% of physicians reported rarely, sometimes, or often (in contrast to never) telling a patient something that was not true, and 55% reported rarely, sometimes, or often describing a patient’s prognosis in a more positive manner than warranted. Admittedly, the latter case could be perceived as compassionate rather than dishonest depending on the circumstances.
What are we, as patients, to make of these findings? Well, on the one hand, the truth could be even worse than the results suggest because of “social acceptability bias.” In other words, doctors know that admitting to being dishonest isn’t the “right” answer to give, so they may ironically be dishonest about reporting their dishonesty. At the same time, the framing of the results may actually be misleading. By taking four responses (never, rarely, sometimes, and often) and grouping them into two categories (never vs. not never), important information is obscured. If most of the doctors who admit to lying are in the “rarely” category, perhaps that’s not so bad. If, on the other hand, most of them reported lying “often” that’s a little scary. Unfortunately, the way the data are presented, it isn’t clear which is the case. I think it would have been better to put two responses in each category so that “never” and “rarely” were combined and compared to “sometimes” and “often.”
My sense is that doctors, like all people, sometimes lie–perhaps more often by omission rather than commission–but that we should not be too worried about the results of this survey. Don’t assume your doctor is lying to you or that they are always being honest. That’s what second opinions are for.
D. Brad Wright is postdoctoral fellow at Brown University and holds a PhD in health policy and management from the University of North Carolina. He has worked as the Assistant Director of Health Policy for the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved. You can follow him at his blog Wright on Health where this post first appeared.