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Is it acceptable for doctors to withhold information from their patients? Some claim that it is not only acceptable; it is desirable. Hope, they argue, is critical to aid recovery, and a bleak diagnosis should not be allowed to kill it.

In his influential 1803 text Medical Ethics, the English physician Thomas Percival described the doctor’s role as “the minister of hope and comfort to the sick,” noting that at times they should conceal alarming information from their patients. A patient’s life, Percival wrote, can be shortened not only by a doctor’s acts, but also by his words and manner.

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