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Doctors Might Not Be Completely Honest With Patients, Study Suggests

Feb 10th, 2012

Honest with patientsDo you believe everything your doctor tells you. A recent survey shows that some doctors aren’t always totally honest with patients.

More than 50 percent of doctors admitted telling a more optimistic version when describing a patient’s prognosis. Almost 20 percent said they didn’t fully disclose a medical error, fearing a lawsuit. Another 10 percent said they told a patient an outright lie this past year.

The survey, conducted by researchers from Massachusetts was published in February’s Health Affairs journal.

“I don’t believe the physicians intend to mislead their patients,” according to Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mongan Institute for Health Policy and Harvard Medical School professor. “Doctors may have told these lies to give their patients hope.”

“Open communication is needed in order for patients to make fully informed decisions regarding their health care,” she said. “This creates more balance compared to the ‘doctor-knows-best’ dogma of medicine’s past.”

“The survey shows that patients need to be more aware and very clear with their doctors regarding how much information they want to know,” she added.

The results are from a 2009 survey of more than 1,800 physicians nationwide. The aim was to determine if they agree and adhere to certain medical professionalism standards set in 2002. Some of the voluntary standards include honesty and openness about all aspects of health care, and full disclosure of any mistakes.

About a third of the subjects disagreed that doctors should admit their mistakes, even though an increasing number of medical centers are adopting policies that advise doctors to apologize up front. Studies show that patients are less likely to sue when doctors are being honest.

“It is inexcusable for doctors to hide their mistakes,” according to Dr. Arthur Caplan, medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “In addition, your care has to be modified because of that mistake.”

Most of the subjects agreed that doctors must fully disclose the risks, not only the benefits, of treatment options and never tell a lie to a patient. However, some doctors admit that they have failed to follow that advice at least once in the past year.

A common lie doctors tell patients is giving overly positive prognoses. Doctors find it difficult to convey bad news, especially when their patient has few options left. It is only recently that doctors are starting to address this issue. But Iezzoni argued that patients with the worst outlook deserve to know the truth so they can straighten out their affairs. Also, studies show that most patients want to know the entire truth.

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