There was a thoughtful and cogent essay on the Kevinmd Blog today about a key element in doctor/patient (or in the veterinary case doctor/client) relationships: what happens to the relationship when you say “No” to people. This is certainly a common challenge for veterinarians, and it set me to thinking about situations in which we are required, in my opinion, by ethics to tell our clients things they don’t want to hear, and things that will not endear us to them.
In America there are be two well-known rules:
1. Nothing is ever nobody’s fault.
2. There is never nothing to be done.
(I apologize for the grammar, but I feel the emphasis is more appropriate than the better-written versions of these statements)
As an advocate for science-based medicine, because I truly believe it leads to better health and well-being for patients than opinion and faith-based medicine, I have an ethical responsibility to own up to the limitations of scientific knowledge. I cannot claim one unifying cause for all disease (toxins, subluxations, unbalanced ch’i, dietary deficiencies, and on and on). And I cannot claim to always know why a particular clinical problem affects a particular pet. Philosophically and personally, I am comfortable with some degree of scientific indeterminism, and I believe it is possible that some things simply can never be predicted or fully understood. But even in the more pragmatic, practical world of applied medical science, the reality is that there is much we don’t know, and pretending that we have all the answers is misleading and wrong.
Unfortunately, people don’t like uncertainty, especially when it involved illness, and they tend to view the claim that something bad happened for reasons we don’t understand, or even possible just by chance and so for no good reason at all, as unacceptable and likely a cover for incompetence. Not being able to identify a clear and simple cause for something means we cannot control or prevent it, and this makes us afraid, and fear makes us angry. Facing this anger and dealing with it compassionately, and yet honestly, is a tough part of our job as veterinarians.
It is very difficult to tell a client that we do not know why their pet has a particular medical problem, and even more difficult to then deny them the comfort of the unproven, or even outright bogus theories they come up with or that others offer them. But part of our ethical responsibility to our clients, and the way we earn the trust they must ultimately have for us to do our jobs, is that we must be honest, even when dishonesty might provide some comfort or make us look better.
Along with admitting to the limitations of our knowledge, I believe we must be honest about the knowledge we do have. When we know that 98% of cats under 10 years of age who present with bloody urine do not have urinary tract infections, we must deny the client the antibiotics they may want from us even if we could make the client happy and get the credit for the pet’s subsequent improvement. We know they won’t help, and may even hurt the patient, and we have a responsibility to admit and make appropriate use of that knowledge. Giving antibiotics for infections that are likely viral and vitamins and other supplements that have no demonstrated value are common practice among physicians, and likely veterinarians as well. They serve our need to do something, and the clients’ need to get something for the trouble and expense of coming to see us. However, they are illusions, not medicine, and ultimately I don’t believe they benefit our patients, clients, or profession.
The same holds true for any implausible or outright unproven medical approach. While our clients are likely to perceive improvement, at least in the short term, with almost anything we do (thanks to a placebo effect by proxy), giving a placebo is a form of lying and is essentially unethical and contrary to the principles of a legitimate veterinarian/client relationship. This is especially true for vets as the placebo is more likely to benefit our clients than our patients, who are better served by real therapies.
CAM therapies can have an advantage over science-based medicine in that they frequently offer direct and simple (though false) explanations and treatment protocols. CAM providers seem rarely at a loss for an explanation or a treatment, and though I am sure it must sometimes happen, it seems very rare that a CAM provider will admit that they don’t know why something bad has happened and that they do not have anything but comfort and support to offer. Part of the mythology that CAM treats causes rather than symptoms, and part of the reality that CAM often makes clients more satisfied with their care than mainstream medicine, has to do with the sense of confidence and certainty (however unjustified) that allows CAM providers to avoid admitting helplessness or uncertainty when we who are dedicated to dealing in evidence and truth cannot avoid it.
There are many other examples of situations in which we are obliged by ethics to say no to clients or tell them something they don’t want to hear. Denying requests for tests, medications, or procedures that are not appropriate for the patient, recommending tests and procedures which are appropriate even if we fear the client may object to the costs, honestly (though gently) explaining their own responsibility for some medical problems and the actions they need to take (overfeeding and obesity, poor medication compliance, etc), and admitting our mistakes are all painful but necessary elements to a veterinarian/client relationship.
It is understandable that we may be tempted to shirk such painful communication, and it is certainly easier in the short run to do so. I have even met veterinarians who based long, financially successful careers on the routine practice of giving clients want they want regardless of what is medically appropriate or best for the pet, and of routinely lying to clients. However, I believe the ethics of our profession, the dictum to do no harm if we are not certain the need or benefit justifies it, and the principle of trust based on honesty in our relationships with clients often requires us to say “No” and to tell clients things they would rather not hear from us In the long run, I also believe we provide better care for our patients if we act this way, and that the short term advantages of false hope and even outright dishonesty cannot compete with the benefits of sticking with the truth, even if it may not always be what we wish it were.