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Why Do Patients Lie To Doctors?

Popular TV doctor, Gregory House’s favorite adage about patients is: “everybody lies.” I used to believe that this was a cynical and inaccurate statement, but I had to revisit it recently when faced with a patient whose signs and symptoms were consistent with a diagnosis that she vehemently denied.

A young woman was admitted to my rehab unit with brain damage of unclear cause. She adamantly denied drug or alcohol use, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was suffering from a genetic or autoimmune disorder that the academic neurology team had somehow overlooked. I had recently read the New York Times best-seller, Brain on Fire and feared that I would be like one of those dismissive physicians who missed the author’s unusual diagnosis and nearly killed her from their inaction.

But staring me in the face were the specific physical manifestations of drug and alcohol abuse, though her urine toxicology screen proved she hadn’t used in the very recent past. I asked her again and again if she recalled any exposure to them – probing for an admission of even a small amount of recreational use. She remained adamant. An exhaustive work up had in fact revealed some vitamin deficiencies, the only hard evidence of anything that could explain her very real and devastating impairments. This was not a case of faking symptoms – at least I was sure of that much. Yet her situation continued to haunt me, because until she came clean about the cause of her condition, lingering doubt would drive me to continue the “million dollar work up.”

And for this young and desperately lonely person, the “million dollar work up” may have been her only chance at experiencing ongoing concern for her well being from others. If she admitted to drug use, then the only people who seemed to care about her (sadly, even if it was mostly because she could make a “great case for Grand Rounds”) would probably turn their backs. With the mystery solved, this fascinating neurological conundrum would become a garden variety drug abuser. A person who was, perhaps, not so much a victim as a perpetrator of their own condition.

I don’t believe that those whose conditions are contributed to by their behaviors receive poorer medical care (consider the smoker with lung cancer, or the person with multiple fractures from a bridge-jump suicide attempt – their quality of care will be similar to non-smokers with lung cancer or people with orthopedic needs from a motor vehicle accident). But there may be a subtle and unspoken judgmental attitude held by some of their caregivers and providers.

Fellow friend and blogger, Kerri Morrone Sparling suggests that fear of judgment, and the guilt and shame associated with self-induced harm, are the main reasons why people with diabetes may not come clean to their endocrinologists about their eating and exercise habits. She writes,

Finding enough confidence in myself to admit my shortcomings to my doctor, who I aim to impress with my efforts, was a tall order. For me, it took finding an endocrinologist I trusted with the truth, including the parts of the truth that weren’t so pretty. I know the best doctor for me is one who cares about my emotional response to diabetes, as well as my physical response. It took some trial-and-error, but eventually I found an endo who I felt didn’t judge, but listened and helped me find reasonable solutions to my problems with “reasonable” defined as something I would actually follow through on. Instead of a blanket response of “Do everything. Try harder,” my endo helps me build off of small successes in pursuit of better outcomes.

So patients lie to their doctors because they don’t want to be abandoned, judged, or shamed. And until they are quite certain that this will not happen to them, they are likely to continue withholding information from those who are ostensibly trying to help.  The problem of lying does not rest squarely on the shoulders of patients – it is also the responsibility of physicians to make it safe for them to tell the truth. They will commit to honesty when we commit to compassion.

As I look back at my interactions with the young woman with the “mystery” illness, it is not so much the fear of missing the right diagnosis that haunts me now. It is that I did not make her feel safe enough to tell me the truth. In the end, the “million dollar work up” offered her little value for the cost and used up precious healthcare resources.

What she needed was a safe place to live, a supportive environment, a program for drug counseling, and job training for those with disabilities. I missed out on really helping this patient because I was more comfortable with searching for a rare diagnosis than pursuing treatment for the all-too-common, nebulous cycle of social ills that poverty, drugs and abuse cause. Maybe I wanted to believe her lie because at least then there was a chance I could fix her?

As it turns out, I was as invested in her lie as she was – we just had different reasons for it. While she did not want to be abandoned or shamed, I did not want to have to face the fact that I had very little to offer her.

Dr. House was right – under certain circumstances, patients are likely to lie. The other side of the coin, though rarely discussed, is that sometimes doctors are complicit in keeping those lies going.

How Do You Explain The Popularity Of TV’s Dr. House?

Would YOU as the patient see a doctor who is a well-known jerk, abuses drugs, gives the wrong diagnosis more often than not, and is known to like ordering very invasive tests??? Be honest…

The other week, a patient with a chronic cough exclaimed to me that she wished the fictional character Dr. House of TV fame actually existed in real life, because he was somebody who can diagnose anything.

I looked her straight in the eye and told her that somebody like Dr. House in the real world would be a physician nobody would want to see for many reasons:

  1. In the real world, patients expect doctors to have the correct diagnosis from the beginning (might forgive one wrong diagnosis). Dr. House seems to always get things wrong multiple times before he gets it right. I seriously doubt most patients would have stuck around as long as they do on the TV shows before going elsewhere. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Fauquier ENT Blog*

Decreasing Jail Time, Treating Drug Abuse As A Public Health Issue

A couple of years ago, I served for several weeks on a grand jury for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Mine was designated a RIP (Rapid Indictment Protocol) jury, assigned to efficiently hand down indictments for small drug-related offenses. These cases usually involved undercover officers posing as customers making purchases from street dealers, or uniformed police stopping suspicious vehicles and searching them for drugs. Although rarely we heard testimony about defendants caught with thousands of dollars of contraband, the vast majority of offenses were possession of small amounts of marijuana, heroin, or cocaine for “personal use.” Many of the latter defendants had multiple such offenses, which had resulted in probation, “stay away” orders (court orders to avoid certain neighborhoods where drugs were highly trafficked), or brief stints in jail. Few, if any, had received medical treatment for their addictions.

After a few weeks of hearing these cases, my fellow jurors and I grew increasingly frustrated with this state of affairs. We felt like a cog in a bureaucratic machine, fulfilling a required service but making little difference in anyone’s lives. A young man or woman caught using drugs would inevitably return to the street, violate the terms of his or her probation or “stay away” order, and be dragged before our grand jury again for a new indictment. We openly challenged the assistant district’s attorneys about the futility of the process. They would just shrug their shoulders and tell us Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Common Sense Family Doctor*

CDC Reports Increased Deaths From Prescription Pain Medications: Should We REALLY Blame Doctors For This Trend?

The overdose death rate from prescription opioids, referred to as “narcotics”, has reached “epidemic levels” in the US according to a report just released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  The report further states that the intentional misuse and abuse of popular opioids such as OxyContin, Vicodin, methadone and others now cause more deaths than those caused by heroin and cocaine combined.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC Director told reporters that “Narcotics prescribed by physicians kill 40 people a day.” He continued by stating “Prescription painkillers are meant to help people who have severe pain. They are, however, highly addictive.”

The report states that increased prescribing of pain medications by doctors is a significant cause of this growing number of deaths. However, the situation is far more complicated than this report presents. Poor pain management and prescription drug abuse has become Read more »

Psychiatrist Weighs In On Clinic’s Decision To Halt Xanax Supply

I’m posting this because Roy fell asleep at the wheel and missed the Xanax article on the front page of yesterday’s  New York Times.  In “Abuse of Xanax Leads a Clinic to Halt Supply,”  Abby Goodnough writes about a clinic where they’ve stopped prescribing Xanax because to many people are abusing it.  Goodnough writes:

“It is such a drain on resources,” said Ms. Mink, whose employer, Seven Counties Services, serves some 30,000 patients in Louisville and the surrounding region. “You’re funneling a great deal of your energy into pacifying, educating, bumping heads with people over Xanax.”
Because of the clamor for the drug, and concern over the striking number of overdoses involving Xanax here and across the country, Seven Counties took an unusual step Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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