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When do doctors and nurses think it's okay to lie to patients?

Most people assume that doctors and other medical providers are obligated to tell patients and family members the truth. After all, how else can we make informed decisions about our health care? Therefore, a recent poll of doctors and nurses (including advance practice registered nurses) may be unsettling. The website Medcape surveyed 286 doctors and 362 nurses.

Nearly a quarter of physicians polled (24 percent) said that it was sometimes acceptable to lie to a patient about their prognosis. Just 8 percent of nurses said it was. Meanwhile, about the same number of doctors and nurses (14 and 15 percent, respectively) said they weren't sure.

One doctor noted that sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference between lying and wishful thinking. He said, "I've often been accused by surviving family members of lying about [a] prognosis and giving them false hope. My customary response is that doctors have hope too." One psychiatrist surveyed said that "under certain circumstances, telling the truth may cause more harm than benefit to the patient. Sometimes an illusion you can live with is better than a truth you cannot live with."

When it comes to lying about medical errors, which many people might assume is more common than lying about a prognosis, the numbers were lower. Twelve percent of doctors said it might be acceptable to lie to a patient about a mistake. Just 4 percent of nurses said it was. More respondents (18 percent of doctors and 13 percent of nurses) said they weren't sure.

A couple of areas where many patients might fully support a lie by their health care provider involve getting insurance reimbursement and approval for treatment. Over a quarter (29 percent) of doctors and 23 percent of nurses said that it was acceptable to be less than truthful for these purposes. One doctor said, "Nurses and physicians stretch the truth all the time, mainly to get needed services and prescription drugs for patients."

Certainly, not all lies by medical professionals are of equal significance. If you believe, however, that you or a loved one suffered harm because a doctor, nurse or other medical professional wasn't honest or that they lied regarding an error that they or someone else made, it's wise to seek legal guidance to determine what your options are.

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