Transparency has become an ethical cornerstone of American medicine. Today, patients have the right to know their health information, and physicians are obliged to provide it. It is expected that patients will be informed of their medical condition regardless of the severity or prognosis. This ethos of transparency is ingrained in modern trainees from the first day of medical school onward. However, for most of American history, the intentional withholding of information was the accepted norm in medical practice. It was not until 1979 that a majority of physicians reported disclosing cancer diagnoses to their patients. To appreciate the current state of the physician-patient relationship, it is important to understand how physician-patient communication has developed over time and the forces that led to these changes. In this article, we trace the ethics and associated practices of truth-telling during the past two centuries, and outline the many pressures that influenced physician behavior during that time period. We conclude that the history of disclosure is not yet finished, as physicians still struggle to find the best way to share difficult information without causing undue harm to their patients.
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