Honesty In Medicine: Is Lying Ever OK?


Is it ever acceptable for nurses, physicians, and other medical staff members to lie to patients to alleviate anxiety? This is, unfortunately, a very simple and very complicated question. It is also a very controversial question. Some nurses will tell you lying to a patient is never acceptable. Others will tell you there is no reason to tell the truth to a patient in a situation where the truth is just going to make the patient feel worse.

In the medical industry, a lot of people lie. Patients lie to their doctors and nurses. Supervisors lie to surveyors and insurance providers. Nurses and doctors lie to patients and family members. The question is – is lying ever acceptable, or should it be avoided completely?

When Doctors, Nurses, and Patients Lie

Withholding some (or all) of the truth in a nurse-doctor-patient relationship requires a great deal of attention. When a patient lies to a doctor or a nurse, the results could be catastrophic. Nurses and doctors operate based on the information the patient provides. A patient providing false information is like a nurse doing a math problem with the wrong numbers. The result is almost always wrong.

From the doctor and nurse’s point of view, honesty is huge. As a nurse, for example, your reputation can quickly shatter following the revelation of a lie. Hospitals, patients, and co-workers need to trust a nurse (or doctor) to work with them. Lying is a quick way to make it difficult to do so.

There are situations where a nurse and doctor agree to withhold information from a patient for the better interest of the patient. There are even some situations where the patient does not want to know the whole truth. Patients sometimes ask nurses and doctors to make decisions for them.

Furthermore, there are situations where a medical proxy makes decisions because a family member is incompetent. What happens when the incompetent patient regains awareness and becomes competent again? In the interest of telling the truth, the nurse should tell both the medical proxy and the patient everything. But the nurse (and doctor) may have concerns about the well-being of the patient after a return to competency. In this situation, withholding information from the patient sits on a fine line of what is acceptable to lie about.

CEO and Supervisors Lying

Just as patients should never lie, supervisors and CEOs should never lie. A supervisor or CEO lying to a surveyor to avoid a fine or a medical insurance provider to receive a higher kickback are two examples of unethical lying in the medical industry that is never acceptable. There is a huge difference between a nurse withholding the truth from a patient to protect the patient’s mental state and a CEO lying to a surveyor to avoid the hospital getting in trouble.

When a CEO or supervisor lies about the current situation to avoid fines or fees, it is the nurses, the doctors, and the patients who suffer. In this situation, some form of problem is ignored and swept under the rug, the CEO gets a slap on the wrist, and the facility continues to operate with the problem intact.

The Bottom Line

Although it is a controversial topic, there are situations when withholding the truth from a patient or family member is acceptable to do. If telling the truth will compromise the mental or emotional state of the patient, lying isn’t a bad thing. As a nurse, you have the challenging job of deciding when it is acceptable for you to withhold the truth to provide quality care to your patients.

To learn the right way to talk to family members of patients in ICU, read our article, “How to deal with the families of ICU patients.”

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