You may know better than to tell the whole truth when your girlfriend asks if she looks fat in her skinny pants, and it turns out the habit of being less-than-truthful goes beyond love relationships to include the doctor-patient relationship as well. In fact, not all doctors believe that honesty is the best policy, according to a recent survey published in Health Affairs. When a team of researchers surveyed almost 2,000 physicians nationwide, they discovered that:
-34 percent of doctors do not completely agree that they should disclose serious medical errors to patients
-Nearly 20 percent of physicians said they had not fully disclosed an error to a patient in the previous year because they feared the admission would trigger a malpractice case
-Nearly two-fifths said they did not completely agree that they should share their financial relationships with drug and device companies to patients
-Just over one-tenth said that they’d told their patients something that was not true in the last year
-55 percent of doctors said they often or sometimes described a patient’s prognosis in a more positive manner than the facts might support.
There are often a number of motivations for why humans dance around the truth (try to think about your own when it comes to your girlfriend and the pants: you don’t want to start or a fight or you want her to be happy). Likewise, there may be a variety of reasons why doctors may be less than 100 percent truthful, from fear of malpractice lawsuits to the fact that it’s really hard to tell a dying person that they are dying. “We don’t know the exact reasons for many of these findings, but it is a caution sign that patients need to be aware of,” says Lisa Iezzoni, MD, lead study author and a physician and professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and director of the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
An important thing to remember is that not all patients are created equal, so a one-size fits all treatment approach may not be the most effective. “Doctors are trying to do the right thing, but patients have to speak up about their own individual values and lifestyle needs because everyone is different,” says Dale Vidal, MD, director of The Center for Informed Choice and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “If you don’t speak up, doctors will make assumptions based on their own experiences and perceptions of what you might want—and their approach may not be the best fit for you.”