Half of patients withholding life-threatening issues from doctors: Study

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Around half of patients withhold life-threatening issues from their doctors due to embarrassment, fear of judgement or possible long-term implications, new research shows. Source: Getty

While GPs and health professionals are there to help people in need, alarming new research shows that close to half of patients withhold life-threatening issues from their doctors due to embarrassment, fear of judgement or possible long-term implications. A new study by researchers from the University of Utah found those who face the threat of domestic violence, who are survivors of sexual assault and people who are depressed or suicidal are most likely not to disclose this critical information with their health professional.

Up to 47.5 per cent of patients who face one or more of these problems were found to be more likely to keep the information to themselves and researchers believe health professionals need to understand how to make patients feel more comfortable with clinicians in order to address the life-threatening risks, with senior author Angela Fagerlin explaining: “For primary care providers to help patients to achieve their best health, they need to know what the patient is struggling with.”

For example, patients who withhold information about a sexual assault could be at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder or sexually transmitted infections, but could benefit from therapy, treatment and other resources that could help them. Researchers analysed responses from more than 4,500 people in two national online surveys from 2015 as part of the study — which was published in the JAMA Network Open Journal.

The patients – who were aged between 36 and 61 – were asked whether they’d ever withheld any life-threatening information from their clinician and to explain why. Between 40 and 47.5 per cent of people said they didn’t tell their health provider they’d experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, depression or suicidal thoughts and that more than 70 per cent of people said it was because they were embarrassed, scared or feared being judged or lectured.

Females who were younger were more likely to hide this serious information from their doctor, which researchers said could be the result of health care providers downplaying or failing to take medical complaints seriously. They also found that there is a lack of trust between patients and providers and questioned if patients would be more likely to be honest about their experiences if they filled out a questionnaire about sensitive information before they speak directly with their doctor.

“Is it easier to tell a piece of paper something sensitive than to look into your clinician’s eyes and say it?” the study’s first author Andrea Gurmankin Levy asked.

The next phase of the study will see researchers contacting patients as soon as they leave an appointment with their provider through person-to-person interviews to ensure patients respond while their memories are still clear.

“If we are there, we can ask them right in the moment so they can more easily put their finger on exactly what was at issue – why they didn’t share such crucial information,” Levy said.

The latest research follows a previous study based on the same 2015 survey which found up to 80 per cent of people surveyed failed to share relevant health information with their doctor about daily issues such as diet and exercise. A third of patients also failed to speak up if they disagreed with a recommendation from their doctor – which raised concerns about communication and trust between health professionals and patients.

Researchers said patients shouldn’t feel judged or rushed by health professionals and should be able to share concerns and sensitive information that could benefit their overall health.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

Have you ever kept serious health information a secret from your doctor or GP?

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