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Are doctors’ white lies for our own good?

On Behalf of | Feb 15, 2012 | Medical Malpractice

Is anyone immune from telling a lie every now and then? According to a recently published study, even doctors lie to patients; 11 percent said they’ve told a patient or a child’s guardian something that wasn’t true in the past year, and about 20 percent said they haven’t fully disclosed a mistake because they were afraid of being sued for medical malpractice.

The researchers from Harvard Medical School who conducted the study said that while it’s hard to know what the effects are of these untruths, they could make patients “less able to make health care decisions that reflect their values and goals.”

Of course, the doctors who participated in the study weren’t given the opportunity to specify what types of cases they lied about, and it’s possible to give a patient more complex medical information than they know what to do with. Not only that, but giving a patient information that turns out not to be true might not be helpful anyway.

But a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania says withholding a mistake from a patient is inexcusable and affects the way a doctor provides care to a patient.

A separate poll of 100 doctors — including neurosurgeons, cardiologists and family physicians — asked whether they had ever kept a serious mistake from a patient. Of the 34 doctors in family practice, 5 percent said they’d made a mistake they didn’t reveal, 47 percent said they disclosed it and another 47 percent said they’d never made a mistake. About 5 percent of the 33 neurosurgeons said they’d never made an error, while 25 percent said they didn’t disclose a mistake and 69 percent said they did tell the patient. Among the 33 cardiologists, 33 percent said they didn’t tell the patient about a mistake, 50 percent said they did, and 17 percent reported they’d never made one.

In the Harvard study, 55 percent said they’d “described a patient’s prognosis in a more positive manner than warranted,” while about 28 percent said they had revealed health information about a patient to an unauthorized person.

Aside from a fear of being sued, some doctors avoid sharing the whole truth because they don’t want to upset their patients or cause them to lose hope. This at least provides a reminder that doctors are human beings, not flawless miracle workers. Still, the researchers said, telling patients about medical errors or the whole truth about their prognosis “can reduce anger and lessen patients’ interest in bringing malpractice suits.”

Source: MSNBC, “Many docs tell white lies, study finds,” MyHealthNewsDaily, Feb. 8, 2012

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