Medical professionals are traditionally identified as purveyors of truth. In fact, truth-telling has become a cornerstone of doctor-patient relationships. In recent years, the patient’s right to autonomy seems to have trumped the doctor’s ethical obligations to beneficence and nonmaleficence1.
In a recent Gallup poll2, nurses were considered the most trustworthy and ethical of all professionals for the 18th year in a row (followed by engineers, doctors, and pharmacists). It seems that patients expect the truth, and it is because health care workers such as nurses and doctors usually comply with this demand, that the profession garners the general public’s respect and admiration.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has thrust many health care professionals into a role that is different from that taken in the doctor-patient dyad. Many, by the nature of their profession, are called upon to provide “expert” commentary on news outlets and social media. They are asked to educate, inform, and sometimes convince a trusting public with their opinions on widely different issues such as triage policies for patients needing ventilators, best medical treatments, population-based testing for signs of SARS-CoV-2, and potentially coercive public health interventions such as quarantine or social distancing.
The potential dilemma is obvious. Cognizant of having the public’s trust, yet soulfully aware they may not possess the communication skills or critical expertise necessary for a truly informed opinion, “medical experts” on the public stage must negotiate a minefield. Frequently, there is a lack of evidence to justify their positions convincingly. Furthermore, there is a wealth of misinformation, contradiction, and uncertainty circulating in scientific as well as mainstream and social media. Scientific backgrounds are diverse, and not everyone can be everything: a competent patient care provider, a well-published intensivist, a knowledgeable public health official, credible virologist, and judicious medical ethicist.
Thrust onto the stage of public deliberations, colleagues who, whether by choice or obligation must comment on such diverse issues have a responsibility to tell the truth. Of course, relevant factual information includes evidence-based arguments as well as judgments based on an assessment of likelihoods and societal values. Ideally, there should also be discussions about guidelines and peer-reviewed evidence complemented by remarks about critical thinking and considerations about the ways and means of medical science3.
But many truths are ever-changing. Therein lies the challenge in the pursuit of truth itself. Each time we learn more about COVID-19, we may need to refute or revise what was considered truth in the earlier days of the pandemic. Such is the nature of the scientific endeavor. “Truth is made,” wrote 20th-century philosopher and psychologist, William James, “just as health, wealth, and strength are made, in the course of experience.”4
- Swaminath G. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun; 50(2): 83–84.
- William James, Pragmatism’s conception of truth. In Pragmatism: a new name for some old ways of thinking (Longmans, 1907), 197-236.
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