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Doctors debate telling patients they are terminally ill

by AirTalk®

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Hospice volunteers caress the hands of terminally ill patient Annabelle Martin, 95. John Moore/Getty Images

It’s probably one of the toughest conversations doctors have to have with their patients: how to tell someone that he or she has a terminal illness. The latest issue of BMJ, an online medical journal, has turned the very topic on its head, by asking several doctors whether physicians should even tell their patients that they are terminally ill.

Proponents say information is power, that patients need to have that knowledge so they could make more informed medical and end-of-life decisions. Opponents counter by saying that the concept of “terminal illness” is not clearly defined and that prognoses can never be certain, so doctors could sometimes be doing patients more of a disservice by telling them that they are going to die.

Should doctors tell patients they are terminally ill? Would it make things easier, or harder? Do patients have a right to that information? How might they approach life differently?

Peter Ubel, Physician at Duke University and author of “Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choices Together” (Harper Collins, 2012)

Leslie Blackhall, Physician and Section Chief, Palliative Medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine


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