Have you ever lied to your physician? If not, you’re in the minority. More than three-fourths of patients have been dishonest with their doctors at some point, according to a 2018 study by researchers including Angela Fagerlin, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at University of Utah Health. The most common reasons: embarrassment, fear of being judged for their behavior, and worries about the cost of treatment.
But dishonesty can lead to misdiagnoses and inappropriate treatment. Even seemingly harmless omissions like not owning up to taking herbal supplements may increase health risks. A patient who is prescribed an anticoagulant, for example, could be at risk for bleeding if she doesn’t tell her physician she takes turmeric—a supplement that affects blood clotting.
“Those are the kinds of things that affect people to the tune of over $3.5 billion in care that was rendered inappropriately,” says Tamara Masters MBA’88 PhD’12, a U researcher in the David Eccles School of Business who studies consumer judgment and decision-making.
A new study co-authored by Masters and BYU researcher Mark Keith tested whether privacy notices would lead patients to be more honest. U of U Health internist Rachel Hess and BYU researcher Jeffrey Jenkins also contributed to the study. Participants filled out an online survey about exercise frequency, alcohol and tobacco use, sexual activity, and use of recreational drugs. The researchers employed a new mouse-tracking technology developed by Jenkins that evaluates honesty by looking at distance and speed of mouse movements.
“If it takes someone longer to arrive at an answer or the mouse moves away, that means they’re having conflict about what they want to say,” explains Masters.
The results were surprising: participants who had received a privacy notice immediately before the questionnaire were less honest than the control group. What explains these counterintuitive findings? Patients may become more guarded after being reminded that they’re about to disclose sensitive info, explain the researchers. They suggest clinicians may not want to offer privacy policies at the same time they collect a patient’s health data.