Bioethics Blogs

Truth Telling In Medicine: Problems Old and New

The issue of truth telling in medicine was a lively concern in the early days of modern medical ethics during the 1970’s. A new moral awareness had emerge that provided a clear moral rejection of the paternalistic approach taken in the physician-patient relationship that prioritized the traditional values of beneficence and non-maleficence over truth telling. Of course the key development that fueled this new moral perspective as well as the growing passion for medical ethics was the newfound sense that arose beginning in the 1960’s that patients with capacity have a fundamental right both to refuse unwanted treatment and give voluntary informed consent to treatments they were considering. It became obvious to students of medical ethics that if patients are to be able to exercise their right to give voluntary informed consent they must receive a full and accurate disclosure of the relevant information necessary for them to make a decision.

Up to the early 1960’s, patients coming into the health care system very well may not have had an opportunity to give voluntary informed consent. Giving patients this opportunity just wasn’t part of the medical culture. In the early 1960’s it was common for oncologists to not disclose a diagnosis of cancer; by the late 1970’s there was almost universal agreement that full disclosure was the expectation. The full moral force of the principle of respect for patient autonomy happened relatively quickly, especially after the Belmont Report of 1978, which articulated the basic principles of medical ethics (though non-maleficence was subsumed under beneficence). There is no question that the physician-patient relationship has been evolving ever since with new levels of expectations and involvement of patients and their surrogates.

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.