Objective. In several high profile prosecutions of physicians for prescribing opioids, prosecutors claimed that the doctors should have known the individuals were feigning pain solely to obtain the prescriptions. This study was to determine how readily physicians can tell that patients lie.
Methods. A literature search was done for studies of standardized patients used to evaluate physicians’ practices. Standardized patients are actors taught to mimic a patient with a specific illness. The papers were then reviewed for the frequency with which the physician correctly identified which office visits were by the standardized (lying) patients.
Results. Six studies of practicing physicians using standardized patients reported the frequency with which these actors were identified as the standardized patients. This occurred around 10% of the time. Some real patients were erroneously identified as the actors.
Conclusion. Deception is difficult to detect. In the current legal climate surrounding prescribing opioids, accepting patients’ reports of pain at face value can have significant legal consequences for the doctor. While doctors must make every reasonable effort to confirm the diagnosis and need for opioid therapy, allowance must be made for the fact that conscientious doctors can be deceived.