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              In Weddle v. Lentz, a federal trial court in Nashville, Tennessee will be addressing the issue of whether a physician can be sued for giving “false hope” to a terminally ill patient and his family when discussing a proposed course of treatment.   

    Bill Weddle was diagnosed with cancer of the blood vessels in 1994.  After sustaining two years of conventional treatment, his doctors informed him that the treatment had been unsuccessful and he was going to die.  

    In 1997, Bill’s wife, Barbara, had learned about an experimental form of treatment for cancer of the blood vessels available to patients in Tennessee.  Under this treatment protocol, the doctor “filters blood and removes elements of cancer cells use to hide from the immune system.”  After traveling from her home in Arkansas to Tennessee to discuss the experimental treatment protocol with Dr. Lentz, the Weddles decided that Bill should consent to receiving the treatment. 

    According to Barbara, the defendant doctor told them that after two weeks of receiving treatment, “all the tumors were just dead tissue except for two, and they were 50% to 75% dead.”  Bill Weddle later died in Christmas Eve 1997 at the age of 40.   

    The defendant doctor claims he told the Weddles that the changes in the tumors indicated that Bill’s immune system was attacking them and they might die.  The defendant doctor insists that he never promised a cure.  However, the defendant doctor did admit that he indicated that it was a good sign that the density of the tumors was decreasing. 

    The defendant doctor stated that he ordinarily does not tell his terminally ill patients how much time they have left because it is important for them to stay hopeful. If terminally ill patients are provided with this information, the defendant doctor believes they may consider suicide, when they could live a couple more years of quality life.  Barbara Weddle believes that the defendant doctor’s words of encouragement caused her emotional distress because they misrepresented her husband’s condition.        

    A recent study of terminally ill cancer patients conducted at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute reveals that raising a patient’s hope can lead to a decision to sustain aggressive, painful therapies which are ineffective.  The majority of patients in the study unrealistically believed that by receiving therapy they had a 90% chance or better of living another six months.  In reality, only about 45% of the patients actually lived that long.  Overall, the patients in the study were far more optimistic than their treating physicians, and did not have a good understanding of their prognosis.  The more optimistic patients in turn were more inclined to partake in aggressive anti-cancer treatment.  

    Researchers in the study believed that one of the reasons that patients were optimistic was that the doctors did not provide them with enough information about their medical condition.  When providing patients with the bad news about their terminal conditions, doctors address the chance of the patient responding to the experimental therapy.  Often times patients look at the experimental treatment as a cure rather than an attempt to add a few more months to their lives. 

    Sometimes doctors justify withholding information based upon the fact that the patients do not ask questions.  However, conversations with terminally ill patients and their families indicate that they want to know the truth.  In order to respect their patient’s right to know and to minimize the occurrences of futile treatment, doctors should take measures to make sure their patients fully understand their prognosis.  All treatment options should be discussed including palliative care, despite the fact that such disclosure may cause patients to give up hope. 

    As doctor Lentz discovered, the failure to fully disclose information to a terminally patient out of concern that they will give up hope can lead to a medical malpractice claim of false hope.

    Important Emerging Legal and Medical Issues

    by Attorney Frank E. Reardon

    September 1998