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Is your doctor telling you the truth? Add to ...

The truth can be hard to hear – especially when you’re sitting in the doctor’s office. But a new study shows that physicians may be fudging the facts more often than you think. A U.S. survey of doctors published in this month’s Health Affairs found that half acknowledged describing a prognosis in rosier terms than the facts suggested. One in 10 said they had outright told a patient something that wasn’t true within the past year.

“I don’t think the physicians set out to be dishonest,” lead researcher Lisa Iezzoni, a Harvard University medical school professor and director of Massachusetts General Hospital's Mongan Institute for Health Policy, told the Associated Press, suggesting the doctors probably wanted to offer some hope to patients. (The study didn’t ask doctors why they lied or what they lied about.)

The survey of 1,800 physicians was conducted to determine whether they agreed with voluntary professional standards created in 2002, which included the guideline that doctors should be honest about all aspects of patient care and disclose any mistakes.

It isn’t just bad news your doctor may be keeping quiet about: 20 per cent of the physicians surveyed also acknowledged staying mum about a medical mistake for fear of being sued. In the survey, about one-third said they didn’t completely agree that a doctor should have to come clean about all medical errors.

Over all, the doctors agreed that they had an obligation to fully inform patients of the benefits and risks of treatment, and to tell the truth. After all, as Dr. Iezzoni pointed out, patients with the worst diagnoses need to know the reality to put their affairs in order. Research has shown, in fact, that most patients want the truth – though one study suggests that doctors may do well to ask a patient’s preference in this area.

While it would be hard to argue any ethical upside for failing to admit a medical mistake – especially one that may affect care – it’s understandable that doctors may be reluctant to give a patient the straight goods if it means dashing all hope of recovery. Sometimes, as Arthur Caplan, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania told Associated Press, a doctor may try breaking bad news slowly, suggesting more tests, for instance, even when he or she suspects the outcome.

On the other hand, a doctor may also exaggerate a test result to push a patient into healthier behaviour. That’s a lie that may be for our own good.

Have you ever caught your doctor in a lie? Would you want your doctor to lie if the news was grim? Would you be okay with a “lie” to spur you into giving up an unhealthy habit?

Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

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