Things You're Not Telling Your Doctor

Many of us aren’t as truthful or forthcoming as we should be with those who are trying to help. Like our doctors, for example.

As you sit down to talk to yours, you might think it’s not a big deal if you don’t mention that extra beer a few nights a week or that occasional cigarette on weekends.

And yes, you tell the doc, things are going fine in the bedroom. Yes, you get plenty of exercise -- a few times a week, you say.

That pain? It comes. It goes. It’s nothing. You feel fine.

So you don’t say anything. The doctor asks. You clam up.

And that, as we all should know, is a bad idea, for a lot of reasons.

“If you’re saying you’re taking all your medication and a doctor notices that, say, your blood pressure is still [high], [the doctor may] add on medicine. You’re creating more of a problem,” says Ada Stewart, MD, a family doctor from Columbia, SC. “And just not having that trust with your patient, sometimes doctors can get frustrated, and that can jeopardize the relationship.”

What We Keep Quiet About

The list of things we tend to stretch the truth on the most includes:

  • Taking medication correctly
  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Sexual problems
  • Illegal drug use
  • Exercise
  • Diet

Why do we fib? Someone who doesn’t take his or her prescribed medicine, for example, simply may not be able to afford it and doesn’t want the doctor to know. Sometimes people fake a symptom -- pain, let's say -- to get prescription medicines like opioids. Someone may lie about an injury to avoid legal issues. Few want to admit that they’re not exercising enough or are eating poorly.

But sometimes there’s something else, something more basic, keeping you from telling doctors the whole truth.

Leana Wen, MD, a doctor in Baltimore and the author of When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests, says fear can play a big part.

“There is fear based on perceived judgment, fear based on maybe what the diagnosis might be," Wen says. "There is fear of discrimination and stigma [as in HIV or hepatitis C]. There are all sorts of reasons on why [someone] might not be forthcoming.”

Continued

Another emotion may be behind things, too.

“Especially in terms of drugs or alcohol or smoking or sexual activity, I think it has more to do with shame,” says Leonard Reeves, MD, a family doctor from Rome, GA. “And it may be, in the case of someone who has a longstanding relationship with a physician that they don’t want to diminish their standings in their doctor’s eyes.

“It’s a complicated relationship. But always, always be open and honest about these things. The physician is there to help you. They’re not there to judge. They’re there to help.”

The Sin of Omission

Flat-out fibs and lies are one problem. Another is when you simply don’t share with doctors, whether purposely or not, important information that you should. Like that pain you had last week that you may not think of during your office visit, or that brief episode of dizziness last week, or that little mole on the back of your thigh.

“I think they may not think of themselves as not being forthcoming. They wouldn’t think that they’re being deceptive. They say, ‘Ohhhhh, you mean anything,’” says Robert Arnold, MD, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Doctor-Patient Communication. “I think some people don’t understand why it’s important. I think sometimes people don’t get the question that we’re asking. And I think sometimes they don’t understand why we’re asking.”

Holding back details may not be lying. Still, it won’t help your doctor get a full picture of your health.

“Something else that I think people don’t really think about that much is herbal medications, vitamins, and minerals. A lot of people take supplements. And some of these supplements can interfere ... with prescription medicines,” Reeves says. “A lot of times [folks] don’t think about those as being important enough to mention to their doctors. But it’s very important.”

Experts will tell you that it’s best to be completely truthful with your doctor. Before you go in, think about how you’ve been feeling. Jot down questions. Know everything that you put into your body. Consider the whole “story” of your health, as Wen says, to put your things into context for your doctor.

Continued

When you see your doctor, lay it all on the table. Don’t hold anything back. Confirm that your doctor is listening and understanding. Make sure you get what your doctor is saying, too.

There’s nothing to be ashamed about or afraid of. After all, you and your doctor are in this together.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on May 31, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Ada Stewart, MD, Eau Claire Cooperative Health Centers, Columbia, SC; member, board of directors, American Academy of Family Physicians.

Sokol, D., British Medical Journal, Jan. 22, 2014.

Leana Wen, MD, Baltimore, author, When Doctors Don't Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests.

Leonard Reeves, MD, Faith and Deeds Free Clinic, Rome, GA; associate dean, Northwest Clinical Campus of the Medical College of Georgia; member, board of directors, American Academy of Family Physicians.

Burgoon, M., Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Dec. 1, 1994.

National College of Physicians, Journal of Medicine: “10 Lies You Should Not Tell Your Doctor.”

Palmieri, J., The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2009.

Robert Arnold, MD, professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Director, Institute for Doctor-Patient Communication, University of Pittsburgh. Medical Director, University of Pittsburgh Palliative and Supportive Institute.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Don’t Be Shy: 4 Tips for Talking to Your Doctor.”

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