Don’t lie to your doctor

Springfield physician urges honesty in the exam room

click to enlarge Dr. Joshua Ellison - COURTESY MEMORIAL MEDICAL CENTER
Dr. Joshua Ellison
A middle-aged man sits in a chair in a Springfield exam room, facing Dr. Joshua Ellison of North Dirksen Medical Associates, a division of Memorial Physician Services. As Ellison looks through the man’s medical charts, he asks a few questions to get to the root of the man’s health problems.

“How many beers do you drink in a day?” Ellison asks.

“Quite a bit,” the man responds.

After further questioning and a little prodding by Ellison, the man admits that he drinks 30 or 40 beers a day. The patient didn’t lie to Ellison about his drinking habits, but it took some coaxing to find the truth. Ellison says that true story illustrates a problem doctors are trying to change: patients are being less than truthful with their doctors.

“These numbers are pretty darn significant and it might have been the basis for why he was in my office,” Ellison said of the heavy-drinking man. “Getting to know the patient as completely as possible is going to help us to determine what is going on with them.”

Ellison said he decided to address why you shouldn’t lie to your doctor after he was asked about it during a radio interview last month. Ellison isn’t writing a book or conducting lectures on the topic, he simply wants to inform the public on the subject of lying to their doctor.  

“It’s kind of one of those common things where people maybe are a little hesitant to tell everything to the doctor, just like we’re a little hesitant to be truthful with the dentist,” Ellison said.

Ellison, who earned his medical degree in family medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, said it’s important to understand what people lie about and their reasons.

“A lot of people may lie because of a fear of judgment or out of some feeling of shame. They may be afraid to admit that they drink 30 beers a day or that they smoke two joints a day or that they feel suicidal,” Ellison said.

Ellison, originally from Weaver, Iowa, said that to help make his patients feel comfortable speaking with him, he assures them that he is only there to help.

“In practice, I try to hash out these issues early on,” Ellison said. “I let them know that I won’t judge them. I tell them I am not the police or here trying to get them in trouble.”

Ellison, who deals with 15 to 20 patients a day in person, said he takes pride in his ability to connect with people, while also making it a priority for patients to leave their visits feeling like someone actually listened to them. Ellison said that patients sometimes are not given the opportunity to explain their situation and it can lead to them feeling hesitant to be honest with their doctor.

“I want to get the feeling out there to people that it is okay to be honest because there is someone here who wants to listen to you and take care of these things,” Ellison said.

He said that over time he has begun to learn when people are lying because of their “tells.”

“When you talk to people every day, you get a sense of someone’s character,” Ellison said. “The tells are kind of like at the World Series of Poker, where you have people dropping their eyes and looking away or having someone let out an uncharacteristic laugh.”

Ellison is hopeful that in the near future people will become more honest with their doctors because they feel less judgment while at the doctor’s office.    

“Physicians are starting to come down from the pedestal that they have been on top of for years and decades. They thought they were above their patients,” Ellison said. “It’s becoming clearer that as society grows up, physicians are growing up too.”

Contact Neil Schneider at

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