Despite some claims from a few deluded individuals it is a basic fact of the human condition that everybody lies, and I mean everybody. Me, you, the guy down the street, everybody at some time or other, for some reason or other has been a fibber, a falsifier, a fabricator, a deceiver, an equivocator, a perjurer, a teller of untruths, a spinner of yarns, a bull shitter. From the small white lie, to the big ugly whopper lies are told in all sorts of contexts, and for all sorts of reasons, and as difficult as this can be for some of the idealists, optimists, and happy clappers of our profession to accept, our patients also lie.
Exactly how often patients lie to healthcare professionals is not well known as its difficult to detect and prove, however, I reckon I have been lied to a good few times in my career. From the patient who tells me they have done their home exercises diligently, yet can not demonstrate them when I ask a few minutes later, to the patient who hops in on crutches unable to walk, only for me to see them rushing around a supermarket the same day without them and without any signs of pain or difficulty.
As annoying and frustrating as it can be when we suspect that patients have lied to us, I think its important to try and recognise and understand why some patients lie to us to see if we can reduce its occurrence, minimise wasted time, energy, and resources, as well as avoid any potential adverse events such as over or under treatment.
Patients may lie to us for many different reasons, some simply because they don’t have the confidence or trust in the clinician they are seeing. This may mean they withhold or distort information due to a fear of being judged, lectured, or just feel embarrassed. This can mean that we don’t get the full history from a patient and may mean we mis-diagnose and could lead to potentially harmful consequences, for example a patient who feels too embarrassed to admit some unusual symptoms of a serious pathology like bladder or bowel dysfunctions, or perhaps feeling too shameful too declare other socially awkward conditions such as sexual dysfunction.
Some patients may also lie to avoid potential negative consequences, such as being told to stop doing an activity or sport they love doing, and this could be just as dangerous. For example, a rugby player who took a big hit and may have lost consciousness but who is desperate to continue on playing so tells us they have no symptoms, to the over worked self employed business man who denies the chest pain accompanying his shoulder pain they are having due to fear they are told to stop working with a big contract deadline.
Other patients may lie to achieve a secondary gain such as exaggerating their symptoms to obtain sympathy, attention, medication, time off work, or even financial reward. For example the patient who claims their pain is a constant 10 out of 10 yet looking calm and comfortable in our assessment, or the patient who asks to be signed off work due to excruciating back pain, only to have been seen picking up a magazine from the low table in the waiting room without any issues or difficulty.
Finally some patients simply lie to us out of bravado and to cast themselves in a more favourable light, such as the patient who tells us they run 25 miles a week, or goes to the gym every day, yet can not tell us what their usual workout routine is or their fastest 5K time.
How do you recognise a lie?
The first thing to remember is that us healthcare professionals are not secret service agents trained in the skill of deception and its detection (ref). In fact healthcare professionals usually operate under a ‘truth bias’ that is, they do not anticipate patients to lie to them and tend to presume patients’ presentations are true, complete, and accurate (ref). This can leave healthcare professionals a little niave and vulnerable at times and susceptible to missing clues that a patient is lying to them.
Now apart from obvious clues such as glaring inconsistencies in a patients story or symptoms, some of the most common and recognisable clues of a patient lying are in their facial expressions and speech patterns. For example a change in a patients voice pitch during a sentence can be a strong indicator of lying, as well as slips of the tongue, long pauses, evasiveness to answer a question, or even the opposite of offering more information than necessary (ref).
Facial clues can include false smiles, a lack of eye contact or head movements, excessive facial touching, head scratching, licking the lips, swallowing, blinking, fidgeting, sweating, and blushing (ref). However it should also be recongnised that all these non verbal cues can also be signs of pain or nervousness (ref).
What do you do about it?
If you do suspect a patient is lying what you decide to do is dependant on many factors. The first thing to consider is do you need to do anything at all. Not all lies in the clinical setting need to be addressed or confronted as this could be more detrimental than beneficial.
Simply confronting a patient who maybe lying or exaggerating facts due to some social awkwardness or misguided bravado is foolish, particularly if there is no negative or adverse implications or consequences to them or anyone else.
And although it can be frustrating and annoying for you as a clinician to be fibbed to it is often in everyones best interests to let some minor fibs go unchallenged rather than compromising a therapeutic alliance that may adversely affect a succesful outcome.
However, if you suspect a patient is lying and/or malingering and it is not so harmless and there are potential risks or adverse consequences to the patient or others then this needs to be addressed. However first before you do it is paramount that you do not jump to conclusions or make accusations without ensuring you have robust evidence to support your suspicions and have discussed these with your peers, managers, or professional representatives first. Confronting or challenging any patient who you suspect of lying is not something you should do without at least checking with someone else first, and get some support and guidance on how best to do it.
In my experience I find that remaining calm, clear, and concise is best and not let your personal opinions or feelings cloud your judgement, stick to the facts of why you think the patient is lying and ask for them to explain. If you think it will be too confrontational or there is a risk of escalation then make sure you have support from your seniors.
So in summary, lying is a normal yet unfortunate consequence of all human interactions. Healthcare professionals tend to be poor at recognising when patients are lying to them due to their empathetic helpful and trusting nature, and as such all healthcare professionals need to be more aware and better at detecting the signs of deceit and deception.
As always thanks for reading