Withholding the Truth Out of Fear of Being Sued for Med Mal

Physician Talking to PatientI recently came across an interesting, though not entirely surprising, study via the Huffington Post. The study, entitled, “Survey Shows That At Least Some Physicians Are Not Always Open Or Honest With Patients,” was recently published in the February Health Affairs journal. One of the most significant reasons physicians cited for not always being forthright with patients was fear of a med mal lawsuit.

The study surveyed 1,800 physicians from multiple specialties from around the country regarding patient communication practices. More than one-third of physicians surveyed said that they did not “completely agree” that they should disclose a serious medical error. And, about 20 percent said that they did not reveal an error in the past year and the reason was a fear of being sued for medical malpractice. These results are not entirely surprising. But, a more interesting bit of data was that more than 10 percent of physicians said that they had told a patient something that was untrue in the past year. This is interesting, considering patients probably expect the truth 100 percent of the time.

The most often cited situation in the study in which the truth gets flubbed has to do with prognosis. And, you guessed it, physicians often give a better prognosis than warranted. More than half of the physicians surveyed said that they gave a more positive prognosis than they should have in the past year. This is one situation in which the fear of med mal is not the typically cited reason for stretching the truth. It more often has to do with not wanting to worry the patient. Noble, I admit, but does it make it ok? Especially considering patients can make significant life decisions based on prognosis? The topic of giving prognosis is a complicated one, and I have written on this topic recently, see my post addressing “How Much Time Do I Have?

Unfortunately, the study did not inquire as to the consequences of the these less-than-honest actions. Did it save physicians from med mal lawsuits? Or did it lead to other problems? Did it complicate matters? A follow-up study would be nice.

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