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Is your doctor lying to you? (Probably, according to a new study)

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A brusque bedside manner can be tolerable as long as the doctor knows his or her stuff. But dishonesty from a doctor tends to fly under the radar – and it's far more common than patients might expect.

A study published this month in the journal Health Affairs reveals that truth is a slippery concept for doctors treating patients, the CNN reports.

Using data from a survey of 1,891 practicing physicians throughout the United State, Harvard Medical School professor Lisa I. Iezzoni and colleagues identified the following gaps in doctors' honesty policies:

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  • One third of physicians did not completely agree with the need to reveal serious medical errors to patients.
  • Nearly two fifths did not completely agree that they should disclose their financial ties to drug and device companies.
  • Almost one fifth did not completely agree that physicians should never tell a patient something untrue.
  • Just over one tenth said they had told patients something false in the previous year.

Of course, that accounts only for doctors who told interviewers the truth.

The findings are staggering considering the trust that patients bestow on physicians. On the other hand, public confidence in the profession has been waning, The Globe and Mail reported. In a 2010 poll, 63 per cent of Canadians reported trust in physicians – a dip of 22 points since 2003.

Could doctors' lies be to blame?

Physicians may forget that patients now have health information at their fingertips. According to the Pew Research Center, 80 per cent of Internet users look for health information online. Plenty of it is misleading, of course, but a nimble Google search allows patients to cross-reference doctors' orders and check for any Big Pharma ties.

Before we start condemning doctors for withholding the truth, however, it's worth noting that time-strapped doctors may omit complex medical information in the attempt to avoid confusing their patients.

"Sometimes there is a tendency to simplify to the point of not telling the truth," says Otis Webb Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, writing at CNN.

Although he doesn't condone the practice, Dr. Brawley adds that in some cases doctors fall short of full disclosure because they cannot bear to tell patients how ill they really are.

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"Telling a patient bad news is horribly difficult," he explains. "The emotional incentive is to hold back information or be less than honest."

Is there ever a good reason for a doctors to tell a patient less than the whole truth? Have you ever caught your doctor out in a lie?

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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