Author(s): Fallowfield LJ, Jenkins VA, Beveridge HA
Healthcare professionals often censor their information giving to patients in an attempt to protect them from potentially hurtful, sad or bad news. There is a commonly expressed belief that what people do not know does not harm them. Analysis of doctor and nurse/patient interactions reveals that this well-intentioned but misguided assumption about human behaviour is present at all stages of cancer care. Less than honest disclosure is seen from the moment that a patient reports symptoms, to the confirmation of diagnosis, during discussions about the therapeutic benefits of treatment, at relapse and terminal illness. This desire to shield patients from the reality of their situation usually creates even greater difficulties for patients, their relatives and friends and other members of the healthcare team. Although the motivation behind economy with the truth is often well meant, a conspiracy of silence usually results in a heightened state of fear, anxiety and confusion--not one of calm and equanimity. Ambiguous or deliberately misleading information may afford short-term benefits while things continue to go well, but denies individuals and their families opportunities to reorganize and adapt their lives towards the attainment of more achievable goals, realistic hopes and aspirations. In this paper, some examples and consequences of accidental, deliberate, if well-meaning, attempts to disguise the truth from patients, taken verbatim from interviews, are given, together with cases of unintentional deception or misunderstandings created by the use of ambiguous language. We also provide evidence from research studies showing that although truth hurts, deceit may well hurt more. 'I think the best physician is the one who has the providence to tell to the patients according to his knowledge the present situation, what has happened before, and what is going to happen in the future' (Hippocrates).