When asked, patients tell: disclosure of sensitive health-risk behaviors

Med Care. 1999 Jan;37(1):104-11. doi: 10.1097/00005650-199901000-00014.


Objectives: National health care organizations recommend routinely screening patients for behavioral health risks, the effectiveness of which depends on patients' willingness to disclose risky behaviors. This study aimed to determine if primary care patients' disclosures of potentially stigmatizing behaviors would be affected by (1) their expectation about whether or not their physician would see their disclosures and (2) the assessment method.

Methods: One thousand nine hundred fifty-two primary care patients completed a questionnaire assessing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), alcohol, drug, domestic violence, tobacco, oral health, and seat belt risks; half were told their responses would be seen by the researcher and their physician and half were told that their responses would be seen by the researcher only. Patients were randomly assigned to one of five assessment methods: written, face-to-face, audio-based, computer-based, or video-based.

Results: Across all risk areas, patients did not disclose differently whether or not they believed their physician would see their disclosures. Technologically advanced assessment methods (audio, computer, and video) produced greater risk disclosure (4%-8% greater) than traditional methods in three of seven risk areas.

Conclusions: These findings suggest patients are not less willing to disclose health risks to a research assistant knowing that this information would be shared with their physician and that a number of assessment methods can effectively elicit patient disclosure. Potentially small increases in risk disclosure must be weighed against other factors, such as cost and convenience, in determining which method(s) to use in different health care settings.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Confidentiality
  • Diagnosis, Computer-Assisted
  • Female
  • Health Behavior*
  • Health Status Indicators
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Medical History Taking / methods*
  • Risk Assessment / methods*
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Self Disclosure*
  • Stereotyping
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Tape Recording
  • Videotape Recording