Physicians should be concerned about malingering

Malingering is the intentional production of false or grossly exaggerated physical or psychological symptoms motivated by external incentives such as avoiding military duty, avoiding work, obtaining financial compensation, evading criminal prosecution, or obtaining drugs. The word “malingering” comes from the French word “malinger” meaning “poor or weakly” as these are the characteristics feigned or exaggerated by the malingerer. Malingering has been documented as far back as in the Bible when David feigned insanity to escape a king he was afraid of. There have many books written about malingering and thousands of research articles written about it.

Malingering and/or exaggeration for external gain are both common in society. For example, 18 people were arrested recently in New York State for workers compensation fraud. At a minimum, when one adds up how much money the state of New York paid out on fraudulent claims in these cases it comes to at least $243,000. To have pulled this off, it required physicians and other health care professionals to have signed off disability claims forms. While malingering can manifest by verbally feigning or grossly exaggerating symptoms, some people go through much greater lengths to malinger. For example, last week a California psychologist was accused of faking her own rape by splitting her own lip with a pin, scraping her knuckles with sandpaper, having her friend punch her in the face, and wetting her pants to give the appearance she had been knocked unconscious. The motive? To convince her husband to move from the neighborhood.

On 12/11/12, a Virginian woman was charged with fraudulently claiming that she had cancer to raise money from sympathetic supporters for personal reasons. She’s not the first to have done so. Earlier this year, a man was arrested for fraudulently obtaining almost a million dollars in sympathy donations by claiming he had cancer.

Physicians and other health care professionals should be very concerned about exaggeration and malingering because they are enabling the process if they are not taking reasonable steps to detect it and address it. Many health care providers do not address this topic in their exams or clinical notes for several reasons, included but not limited to, a) not wanting to deal with the “hassle” of identifying the problem, such as confronting someone (which can be uncomfortable) and/or dealing with complaints, b) extreme patient advocacy, c) not wanting to believe that some patients distort their presentations for external reasons due to an overly trusting worldview, and d) concerns that identification of this problem will harm the patient in some way (e.g., loss of benefits).

While false positive identification of malingering and exaggeration is a legitimate concern (of which there are many ways to address this in the scientific literature), not identifying it can harm other patients and society in two main ways. First, malingering and exaggerated presentations rise insurance costs for all citizens because the insurance company has to spent thousands of dollars on services/treatments that need not be provided or at least not to the extent that they were provided. Most importantly, however, patients with more genuine needs have delayed access to health care services because appointments are taken by people who are trying to game the system and/or who do actually need that particular service. Perhaps, for example, the patient exaggerating pain and other physical symptoms is actually in need of psychotherapy services they have never received instead of Fentanyl patches, hydrocodone, and a TENS unit.

While a public forum is clearly not the appropriate place to discuss malingering and exaggeration detection strategies, healthcare providers need to go to greater lengths to consider and assess response bias in their evaluations or at least refer to someone who will. There are many texts, research articles, conference workshops, and invited speakers that can be used as sources to provide healthcare providers with more information on the topic. A recent article written by myself and some colleagues discusses how to provide feedback about malingering and exaggeration to the patient.

Ultimately, you cannot effectively treat patients who do not want to get better and who do not actually have the problem you believe you are treating (or have it but to a much lower extent than they are claiming). This does not mean every patient is treated like a malingerer, but rather, that objective data combined with clinical experience and research knowledge should be used to guide clinical decision making as opposed to purely relying on subjective reporting, subjective impressions, and a desire to help. All of this can be done in a respectful, caring, and patient centered way.

Dominic A. Carone is a neuropsychologist who blogs at MedFriendly.com.

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