UNC Health Talk

Why It’s Important to Be Honest with Your Provider—and How to Do It

If you’ve ever fibbed to your healthcare provider about how much you exercise or how many glasses of wine you have per week, you’re not alone. Between 60 to 80 percent of people have admitted to not being forthcoming with doctors about information that could be relevant to their health.

“The No.1 reason patients may not be truthful with you is that they are afraid of what you’ll say or are worried that you are going to judge them,” says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD.

Of course, these seemingly white lies can be harmful to your health. Your provider can give the best care when he or she has a full-picture view of your health and body. If someone is using marijuana for pain relief and the doctor doesn’t know that, it’s more difficult to evaluate whether treatment is working. A person who drinks daily but doesn’t tell the doctor could be prescribed a medication that can cause side effects when taken with alcohol.

“If you don’t truthfully answer the questions your provider asks, they may not be able to take the best care of you,” Dr. Ruff says. “For me, knowing if you smoke or don’t smoke or if you drink or don’t drink can really help me on choosing what to prescribe a patient.”

For example, if you come in for a cough, knowing whether you smoke can help your provider understand what may be causing your cough. And “sexual activity is the big one that people of all ages can be not truthful about, but that really can make a difference if you’re thinking about pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases,” Dr. Ruff says. “If you really want the best care, you’re going to have to be honest. I just want to know so I can take care of you.”

A provider might give you honest medical advice in return—“Of course, it would be good for you to quit smoking. Are you interested in discussing cessation methods?”—but he or she should not make you feel judged, Dr. Ruff says.

How to Be Honest with Your Doctor

First, it’s important to note that what you share with your doctor is private, so you don’t have to worry about your doctor sharing your private medical information with anyone else—and that includes your loved ones, unless you provide written permission.

Before your appointment, write down what you want to talk about (you can use code words or hide the list under a password in your phone for privacy) in case you get nervous. Try to avoid apologizing or making excuses for your behavior; think of your provider as a scientist simply collecting data. Answer questions directly and honestly, and don’t leave anything out that could be relevant, even if you feel embarrassed. Give your provider a chance to earn your trust by responding without judgment.

If someone such as a parent or a partner has accompanied you to an appointment and you don’t feel comfortable sharing personal details in front of that person, you can always email your doctor about it later or contact your doctor and request that he or she calls you when you have privacy to talk.

Finally, if you have reason to believe your doctor will judge you or discriminate against you based on what you share—or if it’s already happened, even once—find a new doctor.

“Your doctor is not there to judge you; they are there to take care of you,” Dr. Ruff says. “And if you feel like they are judging you, they’re the wrong doctor for you and you need to find a new doctor you feel like you can trust, which sometimes takes a couple of tries.”


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