Why Do We Lie To Our Doctors?

2001/5/25 Therapist gives patient physical therapy, photo
I am the most health-conscious person in the world — for the two weeks prior to my physical exam. I eat right, I get plenty of exercise, and I think positive thoughts. However, as soon as I leave the doctor's office after the exam, I drive — not walk — to the deli down the street and eat whatever I want. It's as if I "study" for my physical, then after I pass the test, I celebrate by undoing all that good stuff. Why do so many of us try to "cheat" on our tests like this? Why do we try to trick our doctors?

One of the most common things that people misrepresent — not just to doctors but to everyone — is their weight. When some people weigh themselves at the doctor's office, they don't just disrobe, they also take off their watches.

Sex is another area that people tend to wander away from the absolute truth. Doctors report that patients are reluctant to admit that they have any sexual problems. Depending on one's gender, age, and self-image, people might either exaggerate or minimize how frequently they have sex. We spend our whole lives not being completely honest about sex, so I guess it's not surprising that even though they're adults in a doctor's office, some people are still embarrassed about S-E-X.

If your doctor suggested that you cut back on alcohol a year ago, odds are that you'll report that you are no longer drinking as much at your appointment this year. If you exercise once or twice a week, you'll say you exercise twice a week. If you drink anywhere from two to six cups of coffee per day, you might say that you drink two cups. If you eat three strips of bacon every morning, you're likely to fudge about that. And if you eat fudge every day, well, you get the point.

I think the main reason that we don't always tell our doctors the whole truth and nothing but the truth is because of one of our most basic fears:
WE DON'T WANT TO GET IN TROUBLE. We don't want to be yelled at. We don't want that authority figure to shake his or her head and make that disappointed face. So, sometimes when we're with that person in the white coat, we become like children wanting to please their parents.

Some people resent this power that they give to doctors, and that can also lead to them not being forthcoming. They'll think, "He doesn't know everything just because he's a doctor," or "If he's so smart, why doesn't he look healthier?" or "What's it his business how often I go to the bathroom?"

The other thing that keeps us from being completely truthful with our doctors is denial. This leads to rationalizations like, "I'm only taking these extra pills during this really stressful time," or "Why should I exercise and watch my diet? I heard about this guy who was a vegetarian marathon runner but got flattened by a bus."

But I am finally mature enough to realize that this is a foolish way to approach my health. The purpose of my physical exam is not to win my doctor's approval. From now on, I'm not going to go through the charade of being extra healthy right before my physical. I'm going to try to be healthy all year long, and face up to any physical problems I might have. I feel passionately about this, but I should stop talking about it for now. I have a dentist appointment in two weeks, and I have to start flossing.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver