Hope and Terminal Illness: false hope versus absolute hope

Clinical Ethics 4 (1):38-43 (2009)
Abstract
Sustaining hope in patients is an important element of health care, allowing improvement in patient welfare and quality of life. However in the palliative care context, with patients who are terminally ill, it might seem that in order to maintain hope the palliative care practitioner would sometimes have to deceive the patient about the full nature or prospects of their condition by providing a ‘false hope’. This possibility creates an ethical tension in palliative practice, where the beneficent desire to improve patient welfare through sustaining hope appears to be in conflict with an autonomy-based requirement not to deceive patients about their condition. In order to resolve this ethical tension, we provide an analysis of the concept of hope and argue that there is at least one conception – the ‘absolute’ conception of hope – which when properly understood allows practitioners to foster hope in terminally-ill patients while avoiding any need to deceive them about their condition. Practitioners therefore do not need to shy away from using the language of hope in the palliative setting, as on this understanding of hope it can be used in a way that both promotes patient welfare and respects patient autonomy.
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