AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. July 2012, Volume 14, Number 7: 555-556.

The Code Says

  • Print
  • |
  • View PDF

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics’ Opinions on Informing Patients

AMA Code of Medical Ethics' opinions on informing patients.

Opinion 8.08 - Informed Consent

The patient’s right of self-decision can be effectively exercised only if the patient possesses enough information to enable an informed choice. The patient should make his or her own determination about treatment. The physician’s obligation is to present the medical facts accurately to the patient or to the individual responsible for the patient’s care and to make recommendations for management in accordance with good medical practice. The physician has an ethical obligation to help the patient make choices from among the therapeutic alternatives consistent with good medical practice. Informed consent is a basic policy in both ethics and law that physicians must honor, unless the patient is unconscious or otherwise incapable of consenting and harm from failure to treat is imminent. In special circumstances, it may be appropriate to postpone disclosure of information (see Opinion 8.122, “Withholding Information from Patients”).

Physicians should sensitively and respectfully disclose all relevant medical information to patients. The quantity and specificity of this information should be tailored to meet the preferences and needs of individual patients. Physicians need not communicate all information at one time, but should assess the amount of information that patients are capable of receiving at a given time and present the remainder when appropriate.

Opinion 8.082 - Withholding Information from Patients

The practice of withholding pertinent medical information from patients in the belief that disclosure is medically contraindicated is known as “therapeutic privilege.” It creates a conflict between the physician’s obligations to promote patients’ welfare and respect for their autonomy by communicating truthfully. Therapeutic privilege does not refer to withholding medical information in emergency situations, or reporting medical errors (see 8.08, “Informed Consent,” and 8.121, “Ethical Responsibility to Study and Prevent Error and Harm”).

Withholding medical information from patients without their knowledge or consent is ethically unacceptable. Physicians should encourage patients to specify their preferences regarding communication of their medical information, preferably before the information becomes available. Moreover, physicians should honor patient requests not to be informed of certain medical information or to convey the information to a designated proxy, provided these requests appear to genuinely represent the patient’s own wishes.

All information need not be communicated to the patient immediately or all at once; physicians should assess the amount of information a patient is capable of receiving at a given time, delaying the remainder to a later, more suitable time, and should tailor disclosure to meet patients’ needs and expectations in light of their preferences.

Physicians may consider delaying disclosure only if early communication is clearly contraindicated. Physicians should continue to monitor the patient carefully and offer complete disclosure when the patient is able to decide whether or not to receive this information. This should be done according to a definite plan, so that disclosure is not permanently delayed. Consultation with patients’ families, colleagues, or an ethics committee may help in assessing the balance of benefits and harms associated with delayed disclosure. In all circumstances, physicians should communicate with patients sensitively and respectfully.

Issued November 2006 based on the report “Withholding Information from Patients (Therapeutic Privilege),” adopted June 2006.


Informed Consent for Off-Label Use of Presciption Medications, July 2012

Informed Consent: What Must a Physician Disclose to a Patient? July 2012

The Use of Informed Assent in Withholding Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, July 2012

Technical Skill and Informed Consent, February 2010

New Devices and Truly Informed Consent, February 2010