The Whole Truth: Is it Ever Ok to Lie to Patients?

Chief Medical Officer
Friday, February 10, 2017 - 12:52pm

Open and honest dialogue is critical to effective care. Patients are truthful to ensure diagnostic accuracy, and doctors provide full disclosure to help patients make informed decisions. But in some cases, physicians need to balance compassion with a patient's right to know.

It’s never ok to lie or to mislead someone into thinking the situation is better or worse than it is. But it is ok to provide information in smaller doses. Too much too fast is overwhelming, so on the first visit, I try and keep the complex medical talk to a minimum. It’s not all about facts and figures. Emotional health contributes to the success of treatment and helps with survival and quality of life. The last thing I want to do is take away someone’s hope – the most important cancer-fighting tool.

With each appointment, I disclose more and more information about the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan. But I also take the time to listen and answer questions. I take the time to understand fears and concerns. And I take the time to connect with each patient on a personal level. Trust and empathy are important in the doctor-patient relationship.

Physicians are expected to treat patients as partners, delivering a complete picture of their prognosis and treatment options so patients can take an active role in their healthcare. However, there is a time and a place and a way to deliver such traumatic news. I always balance my obligation to be truthful with my desire to be compassionate.