“MDs do not make false claims HAHAHA.”

This is from a comment I recently received on this blog.

It made me think.

Yes, of course, MDs do not always reveal the full truth to their patients; sometimes they might even tell lies (in this post, I shall use the term ‘lies’ for any kind of untruth).

So, what about these lies?

The first thing to say about them is obvious: THEY CAN NEVER JUSTIFY THE LIES OF OTHERS.

  • the lies of the Tories cannot justify the lies of Labour party members,
  • the lies of a plaintiff in court  cannot justify any lies of the defendant,
  • the lies of MDs cannot justify the lies of alternative practitioners.

The second thing to say about the lies of MDs is that, in my experience, most are told in the desire to protect patients. In some cases, this may be ill-advised or ethically questionable, but the motivation is nevertheless laudable.

  • I might not tell the truth when I say (this really should be ‘said’, because I have not treated patients for many years) THIS WILL NOT HURT AT ALL. In the end, it hurt quite a bit but we all understand why I lied.
  • I might claim that this treatment is sure to work (knowing full well that such a prediction is impossible), but we all know that I said so in order to maximise my patient’s compliance and expectation in order to generate the best possible outcome.
  • I might dismiss a patient’s fear that his condition is incurable (while strongly suspecting that it is), but I would do this to improve his anxiety and well-being.

Yet, these are not the type of lies my commentator referred to. In fact, he provided a few examples of the lies MDs tell, in his opinion. He claimed that:

  • They tell them that diabetes is not curable. False claim
  • They compare egg intake with smoking on their affect to your health. False claim
  • They say arthroscopic surgery of the knee is beneficial. False claim
  • They state that surgery, chemo, and radiation is the only treatment for cancer. False claim
  • They say that family association is the cause of most inflammatory conditions. False claim

I don’t want to go into the ‘rights or wrongs’ of these claims (mostly wrongs, as far as I can see). Instead, I would argue that any MD who makes a claim that is wrong behaves unethical and should retrain. If he erroneously assumes the claim to be correct, he is not fully informed (which, of course is unethical in itself) and needs to catch up with the current best evidence. If he makes a false claim knowing that it is wrong, he behaves grossly unethical and must justify himself in front of his professional disciplinary committee.

As this blog focusses on alternative medicine, let’s briefly consider the situation in that area. The commentator made his comments in connection to a post about chiropractic, so let’s look at the situation in chiropractic.

  • Do many chiropractors claim to be able to treat a wide array of conditions without good evidence?
  • Do they misadvise patients about conventional treatments, such as vaccinations?
  • Do they claim that their spinal manipulations are safe?
  • Do they tell patients they need regular ‘maintenance treatment’ to stay healthy?
  • Do they claim to be able to diagnose subluxations?
  • Do they pretend that subluxations cause illness and disease?
  • Do they claim to adjust subluxations?

If you answered several of these questions with YES, I probably have made my point.

On reflection, it turns out that clinicians of all types do tell lies. Some are benign/white lies and others are fundamental, malignant lies. Most of us probably agree that the former category is largely negligible. The latter category can, however, be serious. In my experience, it is hugely more prevalent in the realm of alternative medicine. When it occurs in conventional medicine, appropriate measures are in place to prevent reoccurrence. When it occurs in alternative medicine, nobody seems to bat an eyelash.

My conclusion from these random thoughts: the truth is immeasurably valuable, and lies can be serious and often are damaging to patients. Therefore, we should always pursue those who tell serious lies, no matter whether they are MDs or alternative practitioners.

2 Responses to Random thoughts about the ‘LIES’ clinicians tell their patients

  • My first medical job (fifty years ago) was in a cancer unit. My last, dealing with trauma (and other orthopaedic issues).
    I hope I never lied – but no colleagues have ever discussed the issue, and herein lies the problem.

    Apart from the jokey ‘Just a little prick…’ when about to inject, I learned early on that a spot of suggestion could be employed (a la hypnosis) ‘You will feel pressure..’. The extension of the principle might be: ‘You may be uncomfortable, but we will deal with it …’. That is always true. The word ‘pain’ need never be used.

    There is no need for even ‘white lies’. Ways can be found to represent the truth. More open discussion of techniques and practical suggestions are welcome. But beware, not all patients welcome the truth.

  • On a bit of a tangent but related, is a thought on the psychology of clinical decision making in last week’s NEJM.

    There is the nice quote from Upton Sinclair – “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it” that pretty much sums up a lot of your other blogs.

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