Most of Us Lie to Our Doctors — Here’s Why We Need to Stop

Carbon Health Editorial Team
October 1, 2021
4.5 mins

Some “little white lies” are harmless. But when it comes to your medical care, painting a falsely positive picture of your health or downplaying certain habits or activities can have a serious impact on your well-being. 

Still, whether it’s about our alcohol or drug use, our fitness routines, our diet, or even our understanding of a doctor’s recommendations, most of us aren’t completely honest with medical professionals. 

Research from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that at least four out of five people admit to lying about their behaviors. And omitting these details can harm our health, says Sabina Rebis, MD, a family medicine physician in Connecticut. 

Why Do People Lie to Their Doctors?

A lot of folks are simply embarrassed to report unhealthy habits. According to the JAMA study, patients under-report or omit critical information because they don’t want to:

     • Be judged or lectured to

     • Hear (again) how harmful a habit is to their health

     • Have a doctor assume they are a difficult patient

     • Take up too much of a doctor’s time

This tendency is especially true when it comes to discussing habits like alcohol consumption or drug use. The National Harm Reduction Coalition says that patients fear the stigma associated with certain habits — as well as potential consequences. People may shy away from full transparency, especially if they think their drug or alcohol use could result in a doctor treating them differently (or even result in legal action).

But Rebis says that there’s no shame — or risk — in being honest with your doctor. She explains that anything you disclose in a doctor’s office is covered by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA.) 

“This means that we as doctors cannot reveal anything that you tell us in a doctor’s office unless you are in immediate danger — such as harming yourself — at which point we can intervene to help you,” she says.

What Does Your Doctor Need to Know?

It’s essential for doctors to have a complete picture of your daily life in order to give you the best treatment. This includes an understanding of absolutely everything you use, from vitamins and supplements to alcohol, medications, and even illegal drugs. A doctor may recommend alternative behaviors, but the goal should always be to ensure your best possible health. 

“We want to help you, and we cannot do so without complete information,” REbis explains. 

Why It’s Important to Be Honest with Your Doctor

Rebis says that drugs, substances, and even nutritional supplements can interact with medications your doctor prescribes — and these interactions can sometimes be life-threatening. 

Having access to a complete picture of your health also helps your doctor ensure that you’re getting the best care possible. Your habits can influence more than just a medication’s safety. Full transparency empowers better diagnoses, the right course of medical screenings, and even more proactive healthcare management. 

“There are certain screening tests we do for those who are using substances,” Dr. Rebis explains, such as a low-dose lung CT (computerized tomography) scan for certain smokers over the age of 50. 

Research also shows that when patients are transparent about drug and alcohol use, their healthcare providers can more effectively screen and monitor for signs of addiction or dependency. This helps people access the right resources or treatment if there’s an underlying condition that may be related to drug or alcohol use, such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, or having a family history of addiction.  

How to Talk to Your Doctor

“Our job as doctors is to help improve your health,” Rebis says. “Any shame, embarrassment, or worry that prevents you from disclosing pertinent information clouds your ability to get better and our management of you…. There should never be any shame in getting the help you need.”  

Remember that your doctor’s line of questioning is not an interrogation — they are simply trying to gain all the information they need to offer you the best treatment. Still, while healthcare providers aim to encourage the best lifestyle choices for your long-term well-being, you should feel empowered to:

     • Ask questions until you fully understand your doctor’s recommendations, concerns, or guidance

     • Insist on setting realistic expectations with your doctor if you are working to change certain habits 

     • Speak up if you disagree with your doctor or feel uncomfortable 

For more tips on tackling difficult conversations with healthcare professionals, read “How to Discuss ‘Embarrassing’ Questions with your Doctor.”

Carbon Health promises inclusive, judgment-free healthcare — our mission is to make great healthcare accessible to everyone. Visit carbonhealth.com or download our app to make an appointment with a provider who can answer your questions and help you reach your health goals. 


Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.

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