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Should Doctors Lie to Their Patients About Their Survival Chances?

Human kind cannot bear very much reality, wrote T. S. Eliot, and a recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine bears him out. The authors of the paper asked 1193 patients who had opted for chemotherapy for their metastatic cancer of the colon or lung how likely it was that the chemotherapy would cure them. The correct answer, of course, was that it was very unlikely (in the current state of the art); but 69 percent of patients with lung cancer and 81 percent with cancer of the colon had a much higher hope of cure than was reasonable in their circumstances.

The authors found that those patients with the least accurate estimate of the chances of cure (that is to say who were the most falsely optimistic) rated their doctors the highest for their communication skills. In other words it is possible that doctors who give an optimistic message are those that patients think have told them the most, in the best and clearest way; but it is also possible that optimistic patients view their doctors in a benevolent light. What doctors tell patients, and what patients hear their doctors tell them, may be very different as every doctor is, or ought to be, aware.

The paper raises the question of what constitutes truly informed consent. How many patients know or truly appreciate that, as the authors put it, "chemotherapy is not curative, and the survival benefit seen in clinical trials is usually measured in weeks or months"? For there to be informed consent, is it necessary for the doctor merely to have given the relevant information, or is it necessary for the patient to have inwardly digested it, to believe it? Is the onus entirely on the doctor, or does the patient have some responsibility? Is a doctor automatically to blame if a patient has not understood and absorbed his message? At any rate, the authors say that "this misunderstanding could represent an obstacle to optimal end-of-life planning and care."