Let’s start off today’s ethics adventures with a quiz…
The New York Times this morning has an odd choice for its placeholder in the spot typically reserved for editorials: an essay by Dr. Daniela J. Lamas, a pulmonary and critical-care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The piece endorses lying to patients “for their own good.” The op-ed—that’s not what the times calls such essays any more, but that’s what it is and they are—is fine, raising a legitimate ethics issue for readers to ponder, hence the use of it here as an ethics quiz. The placement and timing is suspicious, however.
This could be called a “conspiracy theory,” I suppose, but such theories are germinated by a genuine and deserved development of distrust. Since I do not the trust the Times to report the news objectively and ethically, but believe with good reason that it manipulates its reporting and choice of opinion pieces to advance a progressive and usually partisan agenda, I suspect that this op-ed was given such prominent placement to plant the idea that doctors—like You Know Who—and health care “experts” are justified in using incomplete facts, false certainty and disinformation when communicating to the public regarding the pandemic, vaccines, masks and the rest for “the Greater Good.”
Dr. Lamas, whom I have no reason to believe intended her op-ed for this purpose (though the Times says she is a “contributing Opinion Writer,” so who knows?) writes about a colon cancer patient who might “have been cured had he not disappeared from medical care to return, nearly a year later, with cancer so advanced that it had torn through his intestines.” He finally reported to his doctor because he was in pain, but insisted that nothing was wrong with him, and that he wanted to get back home to watch a game on TV. Lamas immediately recognized his attitude as irrational denial. She writes,
“I might have left the room then. I might have told him that we were going to do everything we could to get him home, even though I knew it would be impossible. I might have reassured him that things were going to be all right. But there was a part of me, standing there receiving his anger, that wanted my patient to know the reality of his situation. Even now, months later, I am not sure why.”
Not sure why, as a trusted professional, you would tell a patient the truth? Okaaay….
She told the man, “I wish there were something we could do, but the cancer is too advanced. You’re dying. It could be hours now. I don’t think you will make it through the night.” The patient’s family, a long-estranged sister and the man’s son, arrived and turned the hospital television to the game he had wanted to see. They watched it with him until he died that night.
Now, we are told, the doctor believes telling him the truth was the wrong decision. She writes, “As a doctor and purveyor of science, it can be difficult to accept that sometimes the ‘truth’ is not what a patient needs. Denial was my patient’s only defense mechanism. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how cruel it was to try to take this defense from him in the final hours of his life.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…
Was it unethical for the doctor to tell the man that he was dying?
I’ll make just a brief couple of comments before I leave the rest to you:
- As with all ethical principles, truth-telling has exceptions under certain situations, and..
- The fact that the doctor put quotes around “truth” makes me question her conclusion and her route to arriving at it.