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What I don't tell you can't hurt me: Do doctors lie?

There are a million jokes about lying. For example: How can you tell that a politician is lying? His lips are moving. In this case, you can substitute just about any profession and get a laugh -- except doctor. We don't like to believe that doctors lie.

Unfortunately, a recent study says that doctors do lie to patients or patients' guardians. The most obvious reason for a lie could be to avoid a malpractice claim, but the study does not delve into the reasons. The researchers looked instead at how often doctors lied and what they tended to lie about. There is a difference, after all, between a white lie and failing to disclose critical medical information.

Of the 1,900 doctors that participated in the study, 11 percent said they had lied in the past year. About 20 percent said the fear of a lawsuit kept them from telling a patient about a mistake. A little more than a third of the respondents said they somewhat agreed or disagreed that a doctor should disclose all significant medical mistakes to the affected patients.

Delivering bad news isn't always necessary, it seems. More than half of the respondents said they had "described a patient's prognosis in a more positive manner than warranted." In some cases, the researchers say, physicians may not want to upset a patient or cause him to lose hope. There are also times when a doctor may not be certain of a prognosis; erring on the side of good news may be the more humane choice.

All in all, the study raises more questions than it answers, according to the researchers. While the results show that patients do not always receive complete and accurate information from their doctors, the researchers reiterate that the facts surrounding the untruths are not known. Future studies should focus on when and why doctors lie to their patients.

Source: MSNBC.com, "Many docs tell white lies, study finds," Feb. 9, 2012

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