The Lies We Tell Patients, and Ourselves


Throughout my medical training I have witnessed and participated in many white lies that we as medical professionals tell patients.  “This will only hurt a little” or “I’ll be right with you” are two that I hear often.  Around my office, these white lies come out when talking about immunizations (“it’s just a little pinch“) or performing an uncomfortable procedure (“almost done“).  We say what we think a patient or parents wants to hear, because we don’t want to cause pain and we don’t want anyone to be unhappy with us.  In fact, we vowed to first do no harm, so when our practice causes discomfort, it is natural to want to reassure and provide relief, if only verbal.  I didn’t know how much these little white lies contributed to my own distrust of the medical establishment until I was in labor.

After 40 weeks and 2 days of pregnancy and days of contractions, when it was finally time to head to the hospital, things started to progress quickly.  As my pain escalated, I started pleading for my epidural.  The nurse reassured me that she had let the anesthesiologist know about me and that he would “be coming soon.”  When he had yet to arrive a few minutes later, I asked again and was told that he would be with me in a few minutes, right after he did a C-section.  “A C-section?!,” I screamed in disbelief, “I know how long those take!”  I was reassured that he was only going to be there for the start of the C-section and then would be right with me.  I was skeptical.  As more time passed and I was again pacified, I started yelling between contractions, “Don’t lie to me.”  Surprised, my nurse said, “Katie, I wouldn’t lie to you.”  I responded that “I know what we say to people to make them feel better.  Don’t lie to me.”  I said “we” with disdain.  We, those people who lie to patients, as in doctors and nurses.  Apparently, those white lies weren’t so harmless as they had tainted my view of how we communicate with patients.

In the end, the anesthesiologist placed my epidural just minutes later as the nurse had said, and as my pain subsided I apologized for my accusations and (out of character) yelling and my nurse and I became friendly again.  This experience has made me reassess the white lies that I occasionally find myself wanting to say, the things that I think will make the patient feel better but more likely serve to make myself feel better about what I am doing.  I caught myself saying “it won’t hurt” recently and it was when my 4 month old was about to get her shots.  She can’t even understand me and  I am already lying to her.  So I won’t lie to you: shots hurt, doctors run late, and uncomfortable procedures always last longer than you want.

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