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J Med Ethics. 1977 Sep;3(3):133-6.

False belief and the refusal of medical treatment.


May a doctor treat a patient, despite that patient's refusal, when in his professional opinion treatment is necessary? This is the dilemma which must from time to time confront most physicians. An examination of the validity of such a refusal is provided by the present authors who use the case history of a patient refusing treatment, for cancer as well as for a fractured hip, to evaluate the grounds for intervention in such circumstances. In such a situation the patient is said to have a 'false belief' and it is the doctor's duty to try to change that belief in the patient's interest. The false belief is considered here in terms of the liberty principle, the patient's mental competence and on what is called the 'harm principle' (harm to other individuals or to society). Finally the concept of paternalism is examined. The authors conclude that the doctor must attempt to change a false belief, and if this fails he must examine the patient's mental competence to make the decision to refuse treatment. But in the last analysis the doctor may be under an obligation to respect the patient's refusal. Readers might like to look at (or read again) the papers on 'Liberty' and 'Conscience' published in this Journal under the heading Analysis.

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