SALT LAKE CITY — Despite the guaranteed confidentiality and even though it could potentially put one’s health at risk, a new study finds that as many as eight in 10 people lie to their doctors about their health.

Researchers conducted two surveys and discovered that about 80 percent of younger and middle-aged adults aren’t completely honest with their physicians, while about 60 percent of baby boomers misrepresent themselves. What’s more, about a third of respondents admitted they didn’t speak up when they didn’t agree with their doctor’s treatment plan or recommendation.

“If patients are withholding information about what they’re eating, or whether they are taking their medication, it can have significant implications for their health. Especially if they have a chronic illness,” says the study’s first author, Andrea Gurmankin Levy, an associate professor in social sciences at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut, in a news release.

Results were based on two surveys. The first collected responses from 2,011 participants typically in their mid- to late thirties. The second included 2,499 men and women about 61 years old on average. Participants in both surveys were presented with seven hypothetical situations in which they might feel inclined to lie to their doctors or hide certain health behaviors from them. They were asked to disclose whether or not they’d actually lied in the given situations, and if they did, to explain why.

In the survey of younger respondents, 81 percent admitted to lying about a certain behavior, compared to about 61 percent of the older segment in the second survey. About 46 percent of the younger patients had also disagreed with a doctor’s recommendation, versus about 31 percent of the baby boomers. And 32 percent of those in the first survey haven’t understood a physician’s instructions, versus 24 percent in the second survey.

“I’m surprised that such a substantial number of people chose to withhold relatively benign information, and that they would admit to it,” says Levy. “We also have to consider the interesting limitation that survey participants might have withheld information about what they withheld, which would mean that our study has underestimated how prevalent this phenomenon is.”

The authors found the most common thing patients lied about were diet and exercise. Participants also said they found themselves saying they understand their physician’s treatment plan when they actually don’t. Overall, younger, female individuals who reported themselves to be in poor overall health failed to disclose medically-relevant information the most.

As for reasons why, the participants felt that they’d be judged or lectured by their doctors or they didn’t want to hear how harmful the behavior was. Others just felt simply too embarrassed to tell the truth.

“Most people want their doctor to think highly of them,” says senior author Dr. Angela Fagerlin, chair of population health sciences at the University of Utah. “They’re worried about being pigeonholed as someone who doesn’t make good decisions.”

Fagerlin says part of the problem might stem from the way doctors speak to their patients. In some cases, patients may feel less inclined to speak out about an issue if the doctor comes off as cold or judgmental.

“This raises the question, is there a way to train clinicians to help their patients feel more comfortable?” she asks.

The authors plan on running the study again, but talking to patients immediately after an appointment so that the details of the consult are more fresh and complete. 

Researchers from the Universities of Michigan and Iowa also helped conduct the research.

The study’s findings were published November 30, 2018 in JAMA Network Open.

About Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at

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