Sunday, July 04, 2004

Medical ethicist: Honesty isn't always the best policy.

Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist of the Imperial College Faculty of Medicine, London, has an interesting piece in the International Herald Tribune defending the use of deception in the rare case in which honesty (i.e., respecting a patient's autonomy) might lead to death or serious harm -- that is, when truth-telling is clearly not in the patient's best interests. Sokol's presentation is pretty standard fare, and most ethicists and clinicians, I suspect, would agree with his article. It's important, however, to keep this exception to the principle of respect for autonomy within bounds, lest the exception swallow up the rule.

Sokol's short piece doesn't provide much guidance for one of the more perplexing debates in medical ethics: whether it's ever ethical to prescribe a placebo for a therapeutic purpose. (Good bibliography here.) Conventional wisdom has it that the placebo effect is lost when the patient is told that she is getting a sugar pill or other inert substance, so the efficacy of the placebo depends upon deception. Sokol allows for the deception when necessary to avoid significant harm ("nonmaleficence"); would his argument also allow for deception in order to achieve a therapeutic benefit ("beneficence")? The overwhelming consensus among ethicists appears to be "no," yet the practice seems to persist among practitioners for what appears to be a variety of reasons. This piece by Gregory Loeben does a nice job of making the case against deception to produce a benefit for the patient.
posted by tommayo, 1:44 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter