Updated 25 January 2017

The 7 most common lies patients tell their doctors

How many vegetables truly pass your lips daily? How much sugar do you have in your coffee or tea? How much alcohol do you really drink?

It’s common for people not to be honest about these things when their doctors ask about their lifestyle habits.

Here are seven things we commonly lie about – and why we shouldn’t: 

Our diet

It is vitally important that we are up front with our doctor if we have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or any other chronic illness that requires a special diet. People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes often claim they do not eat anything “bad”, but when it the results from the labs come back they tell a different story.

Dr Glorette Myburgh, a General Practitioner who specialises as a Family Physician in Cape Town says, “Most individuals offer the 'best possible scenario' in terms of describing their symptoms.” She goes on to add, “I am of the opinion that many patients fear being judged, as certain activities and behaviours like taking anything in excess, e.g. sugar, alcohol and fats have deleterious health consequences.”

What would benefit both patient and doctor, Dr Myburgh suggests, is to implement a collaborative healthcare plan which would decrease cardiovascular risk, and in so doing, decrease the related morbidity and mortality. 

Alcohol intake

In conversations with various health professionals it has surfaced that many patients fib about the amount of alcohol they consume. To avoid feeling bad they say they consume two to three units of alcohol per week, which in fact could very well be three to four units per day.

This is a concern because patients may develop a drinking problem without being aware of it. Also, when liver tests are conducted and the results come back as abnormal, and patients deny excessive alcohol intake, it may trigger unnecessary concerns, which may lead doctors to delve into issues that, in fact, require no attention.

Several medications should also not be taken in conjunction with alcohol, so it’s essential that doctors know how much alcohol the patient consumes before prescribing these medications.

The severity of our symptoms

It’s both important for the doctor and the patient to be very clear about possible symptoms that either are experienced or could be experienced before and after treatment. When patients go to see a doctor, they need to be clear about what they are experiencing in order to assist the doctor in making an accurate diagnosis.

What may occur in many instances is that patients undersell their symptoms, which could result in disastrous and life-threatening side-effects. Similarly to this, many patients, especially the older ones, may feel that doctors will not pay them enough attention unless they exaggerate. This is not advisable, because “crying wolf” may just result in the doctor not taking you seriously.

Unprotected sex

A common lie that is told by single sexually active individuals is “my partner always uses protection”. This is often proven untrue, especially when patients consult the doctor about sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, HIV infections, and HPV-related diseases such as genital warts. Being upfront with your doctor will ensure that you receive the treatment you require, which can in some instances actually save your life.

As Dr Myburgh told Health24, “Accurate reporting on condom use is challenging and many times because of the power-dynamics in the sexual relationships. The #blesser phenomenon is a good example where young women find it difficult to insist on condom-usage with older men, resulting in greater exposure to HIV.”

Plastic surgery

People could very often be embarrassed to reveal that they had been under the knife, and it’s important that patients, especially those who had post-surgery difficulties and issues with anaesthesia, mention this to their physicians if there is any likelihood that they might ever have to undergo emergency surgery.

Medication compliance

People tend to say that they take their medication as prescribed by their doctors when they are asked. Their answer by default goes to “yes”, even though this may not be true. Many patients may either forget to collect their prescription from the pharmacy, or forget to complete their course.

According to Dr Myburgh, a few pertinent questions must be asked when a patient’s non-adherence to their medication is noticed.

“When there is non-adherence one should ask why. Is the treatment not being tolerated well due to adverse effects? Is it about affordability, or is the treatment regime simply difficult to follow, e.g. meds to be taken with meals when one’s work schedule just can't accommodate it? If so, these factors should be addressed in order to improve adherence and patient outcomes.”

This is dangerous on many levels because if a doctor has placed you on medication it is for a specific purpose – primarily to save your life. It is therefore best to be honest with your doctor about how you have used your medication, to enable you to possibly restart the medication in the hopes of improving your condition.

If you do not disclose that you’re not following your treatment regime, it will definitely delay your healing process and may even result in your doctor prescribing more aggressive treatments like surgery, so the best advice is to “fess up”.

Drug use or abuse

Note that we’re not talking about Tylenol or Naproxen, but hard-core illegal narcotic substances. Drug abuse is very common and these substances can enter the body in various ways, including injection, ingestion and inhalation.

Complications may arise when doctors prescribe certain medications because they might clash with the drugs being used by the patient – sometimes causing a fatal outcome. Once again, it is safer to be honest with your doctor. They are trying their best to help us, but cannot do so if we do not tell them the whole truth.  

Helping and sometimes saving one person will not necessarily change the world, but it will change the world for that particular person – and that one person might just be you!

Read more:

What are ‘superfoods’ and am I getting enough nutrients in my diet?

Diet: how to stay motivated this winter

Obesity may not take years off your life


Live healthier

Lifestyle »

E-cigarettes: Here are five things to know

E-cigarettes have become hugely popular in the past decade, but a rash of vaping-linked deaths and illnesses in the US is feeding caution about a product that's already banned in some places.

Allergy »

Ditch the itch: Researchers find new drug to fight hives

A new drug works by targeting an immune system antibody called immunoglobulin E, which is responsible for the allergic reaction that causes hives.