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Lying to Each Other 

When Internal Medicine Residents Use Deception With Their Colleagues

Michael J. Green, MD, MS; Neil J. Farber, MD; Peter A. Ubel, MD; David T. Mauger, PhD; Brian M. Aboff, MD; James M. Sosman, MD; Robert M. Arnold, MD

Background  While lying is morally problematic, physicians have been known to use deception with their patients and with third parties. Little is known, however, about the use of deception between physicians.

Objectives  To determine the likelihood that resident physicians say they would deceive other physicians in various circumstances and to examine how variations in circumstances affect the likelihood of using deception.

Methods  Two versions of a confidential survey using vignettes were randomly distributed to all internal medicine residents at 4 teaching hospitals in 1998. Survey versions differed by introducing slight variations to each vignette in ways we hypothesized would influence respondents' willingness to deceive. The likelihood that residents say they would use deception in response to each vignette was compared between versions.

Results  Three hundred thirty surveys were distributed (response rate, 67%). Of those who responded, 36% indicated they were likely to use deception to avoid exchanging call, 15% would misrepresent a diagnosis in a medical record to protect patient privacy, 14% would fabricate a laboratory value to an attending physician, 6% would substitute their own urine in a drug test to protect a colleague, and 5% would lie about checking a patient's stool for blood to cover up a medical mistake. For some of the scenarios, the likelihood of deceiving was influenced by variations in the vignettes.

Conclusions  A substantial percentage of internal medicine residents report they would deceive a colleague in various circumstances, and the likelihood of using deception depends on the context. While lying about clinical issues is not common, it is troubling when it occurs at any time. Medical educators should be aware of circumstances in which residents are likely to deceive, and discuss ways to eliminate incentives to lie.

Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:2317-2323

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