Bioethics Blogs

Doctors, Patients & the Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

Can telling the truth be bad medicine? 
Can lies be in a patient’s best interests?
I posed these questions to followers of @medethicsandme, the Twitter feed of the Boston nonprofit Community Voices in Medical Ethics. The tweet linked to a compelling New York Times story suggesting convincingly that honesty is not always the best policy in the doctor-patient relationship. In the Times story, the doctor-author grudgingly abides a father’s request to tell a patient news grounded more in hope than medical opinion. Later, the doctor performs a procedure that another patient has said he doesn’t want, saves his life, and hears an expression of gratitude layered in ambiguity.
“No ethic in medicine is absolute,” came one reply. I thought it was an insight from the source of the retweet until I came across the sentence in rereading the Times story. Somehow the words hadn’t stood out as memorable on first pass, and I’d skipped right by them. Which perhaps says something else about doctor-patient communication, and how what is said often is not what is heard or understood.
I underlined the comment and clipped the story, illustrated with an image of white doctor holding a patient of color in his arms. The words are worth remembering: “No ethic in medicine is absolute.”
Cardiologist and author Sandeep Jauhar packed a lot into the Times story, not the least of it being an assessment of the consequences of medicine’s transition, roughly in the past half-century, from a “Father Knows Best”-style paternalism to heightened respect for patient autonomy.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.