When Dr Laura-Jane Smith's gravely ill patient asked her "am I dying?" she told him the truth. His family felt she shouldn't have been so honest. This began a philosophical journey in an attempt to answer her own question - is it ever right to lie to a patient?
Dr Smith is a Respiratory Registrar in London. She writes a blog called 'Life, death and some stuff in between'.
Most days at work pass in a blur of clinics, referrals, ward rounds, meetings, emails and phone calls. But work as a doctor is more than tasks. It requires a repeated, brutal confrontation with the realities of pain, suffering and illness; with humanity itself. At the end of the day I am sometimes left with emotions and questions that I can’t leave behind at the doors of the hospital. I have often felt poorly equipped to navigate the grey areas of medicine that no textbook or Google search can answer. And so this year I signed up for an introductory course in Philosophy.
I was particularly interested in moral philosophy which attempts to answer questions such as “how should I live?”, “what ought I to do?” We began a session with a discussion on whether it is ever right to lie.
I was surprised when, early in the discussion, one of the class asserted that doctors lie all the time, particularly about poor prognoses and impending death. They expected doctors to lie to patients if asked if they were dying, and seemed to accept this. This resonated as I had recently faced exactly this situation. I was asked by a patient if he was dying, and I answered honestly, ‘yes‘. He died the same day. His family were extremely upset and challenged me over what I had said. They felt I had hastened his death by taking away hope, and that I had no right to divulge this information without their consent.
I have thought a lot about this patient, my response and his family’s feelings. Was I right to answer honestly? Did he really want to know? Is there any truth in the assertion that removing hope hastens death? Is false hope of any value? Is it ever right to lie to a patient?
Philosophy offers some possible answers. Kant’s deontological theory asserts that it is always wrong to lie as we have a duty to tell the truth. This is true whatever the consequences. Kant believed that people have instrinsic worth or ‘human dignity’ through being uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions. Lying does not give people the respect they deserve and robs them of their human dignity as it prevents them from exercising their rationality. Also, since I would not want to live in a world in which lying was commonplace, Kant would advise I assert the maxim ‘do not lie’ and act in accordance with this.
From a Kantian perspective, therefore, I did the right thing in answering my patient honestly, even if that may have hastened his death and caused distress to his relatives. Most people find Kant’s absolutism challenging. Life is complex and nuanced and always telling the absolute truth inevitably causes harm which could be avoided. Our class quickly cited many examples of situations in which it seemed morally right to lie and we questioned whether that was because Kant was wrong, or whether we were too weak to live out our convictions.
One problem with a duty-based moral framework, which seems particularly important in medicine, is that different duties may be in opposition. If I have a duty to both tell the truth and exhibit compassion, which should be prioritised if I believe they are in conflict? How do I decide which is the ‘higher‘ duty?
An alternative approach is consequentialism, born from utilitarianism. Jeremy Bentham and his followers assert that the only question you need to ask when deciding on the best course of action is “what will bring about the greatest happiness and the least pain?”
One challenge to utilitarianism is that we can never truly know what will happen as a result of our actions. However, we can seek out all available evidence to help us make likely predictions. Every decision we make in life is based on the information available to us at the time, rather than absolutely all information known to man.
After reflecting on my patients’ family’s words I searched for evidence on whether knowledge of terminal illness shortened prognosis. I have heard many anecdotal tales of patients living for a few extra days or weeks in order to witness an important personal event such as a wedding, a birth or a final farewell with a relative flying in from abroad. I had not heard examples of patient’s rapidly declining after having frank discussions on prognosis. A literature search did not reveal anything that helped me answer the question. It was therefore challenging to weigh up this potential harm as a result of my actions.
One consequence of lying that is more predictable is that it leads people to make decisions based on false information. In this case, it could have prevented my patient from saying important last words and seeking resolution, forgiveness or solace from friends and family. It is difficult to put a value on this but many who write about their own terminal illness cite the importance of these conversations at the end and I would not want to rob someone of this opportunity due to a paternalistic vision of ‘protecting them from the truth’.
As Freud said:
“The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.”
Interestingly, defining lying may not be as simple as it first seems. One definition, from Sam Harris, highlights that deceit is a necessary condition:
‘To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication’
This made me think. Did my patient expect honest communication? Or was he looking for me to collude with him in false optimism? I place a high value on hope but do not believe in giving false hope and in this case all my education and experience told me that this patient had days left at most. I like to think that I am sensitive to cues and that in this case he truly did want to know. In fact I realised that very few people ask “am I dying?” directly. Forming the words and uttering them aloud must take courage, and I think almost all of those that muster sufficient will to ask this question do genuinely want an answer. I am careful never to answer subtle, side-stepping queries too directly, and to try to match my language to that the patient chooses to use. It seems I already attempt to assess whether my patients expect honest communication, without having thought about this aspect of our relationship before.
We can never know what a patient’s true intention is when they ask us for truths no-one really wants to hear. But having thought about this more, I think starting from an assumption of patient autonomy, and therefore responding with honesty, is the morally right thing to do.
In navigating this question I also thought about how we must be careful not to fall into the trap of imposing our personal values on those for whom we care. Personally, I would always want to know the truth, however hard it might be to hear. I value autonomy and my ability to act rationally based on all available information above almost any other right or virtue. But this is not so for everyone. In my quest to be honest and avoid paternalism I must be careful not to do harm by giving too much information too fast.
My foray into moral philosophy has not provided me with any definite answers to my original questions about whether I was right to tell my patient he was dying, or whether it is ever right to lie to a patient. But it has provided a framework through which I have been able to question and defend my actions – to others and, more importantly, to myself.
As I left the hospital this week I felt just a little more content, thanks to the wisdom of Aristotle, Kant, Bentham and Mill. Philosophy has a lot to offer physicians. I intend to open my mind.
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