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Why People Lie to Their Doctors (and Why It Needs to Change)

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I think one of the most difficult parts of dealing with any physical or mental health condition is combating the silent judgments and apparent stigmas that people carry around. Personally, I can’t tell you the number of interactions that have completely changed as soon as I disclose my mental health conditions. People either lose any respect they had for me, instantly pull away or start questioning the validity of everything I say. It’s almost like admitting I struggle with mental illness means I’m some sort of stranger who can’t be trusted.

While it’s bad enough to experience these harsh judgments from friends and family members, it’s even worse when they come from the medical community.

In my experience, doctors and other medical professionals are some of the worst culprits of judging people based on labels or identifying criteria. Not only have I experienced confirmation bias from multiple mental health professionals, but I also received questions about my credibility from prenatal specialists when I mentioned that my Poland syndrome may be a genetic condition. What’s more, I don’t even bring up my chronic migraine and muscle pain to my primary care doctor anymore as he merely dismisses it as a result of my obesity.

Since nobody ever talks about these types of situations, I always assumed I was alone in my distrust of the medical community. According to a recent survey by personal wellness brand Life Extension, though, I am not alone in my fear of trusting the medical community.

The company polled 1000 people across the United States to learn more about how honest people really are with their health care providers. Believe it or not, nearly 55% of millennials (as well as close to 40% of Gen X and Baby Boomers) claim that they withhold information from health care providers. Out of those who admitted to withholding information or lying to their doctor, over half of them do so because they fear judgment and feel too embarrassed to share the truth. Furthermore, nearly 1 in 3 of these dishonest patients lie because they’re ashamed of their health conditions or symptoms.

While yes, some white lies won’t hurt, the fact is that withholding information during medical appointments can severely impact a patient’s ability to receive the correct diagnosis or obtain the proper medical care that is needed to manage their symptoms. For me, this means self-managing the migraine attacks I experience two to four times per month. But for people with more serious health conditions? The impact can be deadly.

So what can we do to change the narrative here?

Although the best way to ensure health and happiness is through honesty during medical appointments, this issue is really a two-way street. Doctors need more formal training on how to provide empathetic care, avoid confirmation bias, and cast aside their judgments during appointments. These actions will, in turn, help patients feel more comfortable when appointments require a certain vulnerability, not to mention it will open the doors to more effective doctor-patient communication.

If you don’t feel like your current treatment team is providing a judgment-free zone so that you can be fully honest with them, then it’s probably time to start looking for new health care providers. Remember that, as a patient, you have the autonomy to fire doctors or other providers when their services aren’t meeting your needs. You deserve access to the medical care and attention you need without fear of judgment or retribution no matter what physical or mental health conditions you live with.

Getty Images illustration via Anastasia Usenko

Originally published: November 16, 2020
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