The nation is riveted by President Trump's illness: whether we hate Trump or love him, we want to know how he is faring with Covid-19. We want to understand what this disease looks like in an elderly man with at least one chronic health condition. Unfortunately, what we have been told by the physicians involved in Trump's care has been marred by commissions, distortions, and downright lies.
There is a long history of presidents wishing to mislead the public about their health and of their physicians colluding in the deception—Woodrow Wilson’s stroke was concealed, Franklin Roosevelt’s high blood pressure and heart problems were downplayed, and John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease and chronic back pain were not fully disclosed. But however objectionable we may find this public lack of transparency, President Trump’s personal physician has claimed a different reason for being less than forthcoming. He asserted that he had understated the seriousness of his patient’s condition because he “didn’t want to give any information that might steer the illness in another direction.” That is, Dr. Sean Conley didn’t want his patient to know that his low oxygen levels and high fever were worrisome, so he lied about his condition. Telling the truth, he was asserting, could harm his patient. But is that true?
Truth-telling in medicine has been the subject of extensive ethical analysis and of clinical study. The bottom line is that while doctors used to routinely lie to their patients in the belief that they were protecting them, for the last 50 years the standard of care has been to keep patients informed to whatever extent they wish and, based on their accurate understanding of their situation, to engage them in decision-making about treatment.
The change in practice occurred in the sixties and seventies: in 1961, when a questionnaire was administered to oncologists asking them if they told their patients that they had cancer, fully 90 percent of them said they did not. When the study was repeated in 1979, 97 percent of them said they would tell patients their diagnosis. The earlier view was based on the paternalistic belief that physicians always knew what was best for their patients and on the conviction that if patients knew they were seriously ill they would become depressed and possibly even suicidal. Between 1961, when the first study was conducted, and 1979, when the second study was carried out, western biomedical ethics came into its own as a field.
Physicians and medical ethicists increasingly recognized that there was often no single optimal course of treatment: several different possible approaches might be possible, each with its own likelihood of benefit and each with its own risks; which approach was “right” for a given patient depended on that person’s preferences and values. One person with a particular type of cancer might wish to undergo treatment with chemotherapy that had a high probability of resulting in serious side effects in exchange for a small chance of life-prolongation; another individual with the same disease might opt for a different treatment that was less likely to cause severe side effects but that offered a smaller chance of life-prolongation. Whenever the choice of treatment depended on values as well as technical expertise, the patient had to be included in the decision-making along with the physician. The principle of beneficence, or doing good, and the principle of non-maleficence, or not doing harm, co-existed with the principle of autonomy, or the right of patient self-determination.
Choosing the right treatment for a particular patient, in many cases, required that the patient know the truth about his diagnosis. Without knowing the facts, he couldn’t possibly participate in a conversation with his physician about treatment options. Moreover, growing evidence indicated that when patients are engaged in their own health care, they do not become morbidly depressed or overtly suicidal; on the contrary, health outcomes improve.
The regrettable example set by the president’s personal physician notwithstanding, you should expect honesty from your doctor. Yes, you should expect that your doctor will have the communications skills necessary to impart bad news sensitively. Trust is at the core of the doctor-patient relationship, and trust cannot be built on a lie.