A University of Michigan study published last Friday found anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of patients are not completely truthful with their doctors.
The study, co-authored by Brian Zikmund-Fisher, associate professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University, examined the frequency of patients failing to disclose relevant information to their clinicians.
The study used an online survey to assess participants’ interactions with health professionals, asking them to answer about what aspects of their lives they failed to tell the truth about, such as how often they exercise and whether or not they take their prescriptions correctly. Researchers found the main reason patients withheld information was a fear of being judged.
Zikmund-Fisher said clinicians did not wish to make patients feel embarrassed or judged.
“There’s certainly part of it that’s internal,” Zikmund-Fisher said. “They didn’t want to take up more of their health care providers time, they didn’t want their healthcare providers to think they’re stupid, they didn’t want this information to be in their record (and) they didn’t want to hear how bad the behavior is.”
The study found young people were roughly 20 percent more likely to lie to their health care providers than older generations. In particular, younger female participants with worse self-rated health reported withholding information from health care professionals more often.
Researcher Aaron Scherer, an associate professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa, said he wants to know if more honest relationships could occur if a doctor shares similar identities to their patient.
“One interesting way to build off these findings would be to test whether the extent to which a patient shares similarities with their doctor (e.g., they share the same race or gender) influences their tendency to tell their doctor potentially important health information or not,” Scherer wrote in an email interview.
In order to lower the rate of patient dishonesty, Zikmund-Fisher said greater verbal compassion from the health care provider is necessary.
“This is speculation, we do not have evidence for this in our study, but my speculation is that now that we know that this is in fact quite common it may be important for healthcare providers to acknowledge that,” Zikmund-Fisher said. “Just say to patients, ‘I know that it is difficult sometimes to share with me if you don’t understand me, if you aren’t following the instructions, if you are engaging in behaviors that you know you probably shouldn’t be.’ Acknowledge that sharing that type of information is hard … and to try and reassure patients that.”
Scherer said empathy is important from the patients as well.
“I think one solution to this problem is the development of increased empathy from both doctors and patients,” Scherer wrote. “On the patient-side, I don’t think most patients realize the enormous number of demands that are being placed on doctors right now, so it might be necessary for a broader information campaign about these demands to change how the general public view their doctors.”
When presented with the research, Nursing sophomore Jacob Doxen said he was surprised to find out the percentage of dishonest patients was so high.
“It’s shocking because people in the medical profession, nurses and doctors, are just trying to help their patients,” Doxen said. “There’s no judgment involved in being a nurse or a doctor. We can really only provide the help that the patient needs.”
However, Doxen said he is hopeful for the future and believes trust is necessary to create the best relationship between a patient and a health care professional.
“In nursing school, one of the biggest things that they emphasize is building trust with your patients and proving to them that they can be open with you and honest with you,” Doxen said. “Make sure that trust is established and continue to build upon it with every visit or every time you interact. It’s a lot easier to lose trust than it is to build trust.”