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Study: Close to half of patients don't disclose potential life-threatening issues with their doctor

Study: Close to half of patients don't disclose potential life-threatening issues with their doctor

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Estimated read time: 2-3 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — A study released by researchers at the University of Utah and three other universities last week shows nearly half of patients may not be divulging important information about life-threatening issues, such as depression or domestic abuse, when visiting a doctor.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the U., the University of Iowa, University of Michigan and Middlesex Community College in Connecticut, and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open on Wednesday, sought to better understand patient-physician communication, said Angie Fagerlin, professor and chair at the U.’s Department of Population Health Sciences, and the study's senior author.

The researchers wanted to know the types of topics patients were or were not comfortable discussing with their doctors, nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants. They eventually narrowed it down to four issues: the threat of domestic violence, being a survivor of sexual assault, having suicidal thoughts, or dealing with depression.

Researchers compiled results from two groups of respondents online. Forty percent of one group and 47.5% of patients in the other group responded that they had or were experiencing one or more of those four issues and did not disclose that with a clinician. The study found women and those with self-reported poorer health were “significantly more likely to withhold this information from their clinician.”

So why aren’t people disclosing those types of important information? More than 70% of respondents who said they avoided bringing up an issue said it was due to fear of embarrassment. Avoiding judgment or lecture, avoiding difficult follow-ups, fear of having it put on medical record, or belief the clinician could not help rounded out the five most common reasons.

“These results highlight the continued need to develop effective interventions that improve the trust and communication between patients and their clinicians, particularly for sensitive, potentially life-threatening topics,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

That’s exactly what Fagerlin took from the study, as well. She said she hopes people don’t blame patients for not disclosing information that may be of importance to their well-being. She said understanding why some people don’t disclose that information, plus further research, may help lead to better ways for patients to communicate with their health care provider.

“It suggests there’s work to be done, probably on both sides of the conversation because the conversation is between at least two people,” she said. “There are probably some things, some interventions we can develop, or strategies that would help patients be more comfortable disclosing really sensitive information. And maybe that would help providers open up the conversation to these really sensitive topics.”

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