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Patients Who Lie to their Doctors

I’d like to share an open secret about my day job. Patients lie to their docs. Patients lie about how often they exercise, how much they smoke and drink, and whether they’re taking their medicine. And, as a respiratory therapist, I hear people grossly underestimate the severity of their symptoms. The other day, I saw a man hunched over, gasping at a rate of thirty, yet declaring his breathing was fine. I humored him, but I wrote up the true findings on his chart. And, when I’ve had bad bronchitis, I sat in the doctors hunched over, and telling my doc my breathing was fine.
Howcumzit? Breathing is a basic function, and when that goes sour, everything in your life feels wrong. When you get sick, your job security and insurance coverage are on the table. People fear the doctor might judge them, so they try to appear at their best. And so the fibs start coming, and sometimes with serious consequences. Example: a diabetic binges on sweets, comes to doctor with a grossly high sugar level, and lies about his transgression. The doctor beefs up the insulin and sends the patient into low blood sugar and insulin shock.
You may wonder how all this can relate to writing. It bears chatting about my day job because most of the medical background in my books came from that job. Including the lies patients tell their doctors.
In my book Dark Side of the Moon, protag Becky told the Employee Health doctor a whopper when she got her physical for to work at Betsy Ross Hospital. She knew she had blood irregularities, and so did her family doctor. But no self-respecting Employee Health doctor will clear someone for work with undiagnosed blood cell abnormalities. So Becky got her family doctor to fudge the lab report. I would bet all the balloons in my home, and fatten my collection by betting, that she didn’t say squat about telekinesis to the employee doc. Dr. Hoffman figured out the score when she got pregnant, and alas, he acted like a jerk.
Lying to doctors can be a useful tool in your fiction, and may help you explain how people who are “not right” end up in responsible jobs. Imagine this: You work as a nurse on a floor of 50 people, and your boss hires someone who is incompetent. Perhaps she skips treatments and starts blowing up at people. The character has a history of psychosis, and lied about it on her application. Perhaps she knows something incriminating about the head boss. The stage is set for later, if she does get canned, for the woman to show up on the premises with a shotgun.
So have fun with the lying tool, and let your characters lie to their hearts’ content. But in real life, if you’ve been naughty, ‘fess up to your doctor. Your health (and your writing, as a consequence) will be much better for it.

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