The Downside of Truth


At a recent surgical Morbidity and Mortality Conference, we discussed a tragic case of an elderly gentleman who had been explored for a gastric outlet obstruction. He was found to have a widely metastatic malignancy of unknown primary that was clearly unresectable. Biopsies were taken, a bypass was performed to alleviate the obstruction, and the patient was closed. The surgeon subsequently discussed the findings with the patient and his family. They were understandably upset after getting the news, but plans were made for follow-up and possible treatment when the final pathology was back. During several days in the hospital, the patient seemed to be in good spirits and was seen regularly, encouraging his family not to worry. However, on the day of discharge, the patient went home and committed suicide.

This case raised a series of important questions at the Morbidity and Mortality (M&M) Conference. Had the patient shown signs of depression? Should he have been evaluated by psychiatry? Did the surgical team miss any signs of his impending actions? In the tradition of M&M Conferences, the discussion focused on the question, "What would you have done differently?"

One issue repeatedly raised in the discussions at conference given the patient’s response was whether he should have been told his diagnosis. Such a consideration is a radical idea today when no physician would argue against telling a patient a diagnosis of cancer. But this consensus of full disclosure is relatively new in the medical profession. In 1961, 88% of physicians surveyed at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago stated that their general policy was not to disclose a cancer diagnosis to the patient (JAMA 1961;175:1120-8). Certainly, this view among physicians has changed dramatically in recent decades. By 1979, the same survey at the same hospital revealed that 98% of physicians said that they tell patients that when the diagnosis is cancer (JAMA 1979;241:897-900).

In the medical profession, a diagnosis is no longer seen as information that can be withheld from a patient. The idea of respecting the patient as a person means that the patient must have the information necessary to make decisions about his or her future.

In this context, the recent New York Times article entitled "When Doctors Need to Lie" (Feb. 22, 2014) is provocative. Dr. Sandeep Jauhar suggests that sometimes there are situations in which doctors need to exercise a form of paternalism and lie to patients for their own benefit. Dr. Jauhar described a case in which he informed the family of a young patient of the true diagnosis, but only gradually and gently told the young man of his true condition.

Informing the elderly gentleman of his diagnosis may well have triggered his suicide. If the patient had not known that he had unresectable cancer, he could well still be alive. Nevertheless, no one at the M&M conference thought that lying about the diagnosis could be justified. Knowing the diagnosis is the fundamental basis for a patient to project a future existence. The ability to make the best medical and nonmedical decisions is dependent on having valid information. Without truthful information, the decisions made are uninformed and no better than guesses. It is not the physician’s role to guess the reaction of a patient to a diagnosis or project a future circumstance that may result from the patient learning the truth.

While the outcome of the transmission of knowledge to the patient may at times be unfortunate, the ethical implications of not telling patients the truth are potentially even more unfortunate. How can a surgeon establish a relationship of trust while also lying to a patient or withholding important information? Even though the choice made by this particular patient was tragic, to have lied to him is contrary to the physician’s role. Truth is the basis of trust, and trust in turn must be the basis of the relationship between doctor and patient.

Dr. Angelos is an ACS Fellow; the Linda Kohler Anderson Professor of Surgery and Surgical Ethics; chief, endocrine surgery; and associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.

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