The right not to know and the obligation to know

J Med Ethics. 2020 May;46(5):300-303. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-106009. Epub 2020 Apr 29.


There is significant controversy over whether patients have a 'right not to know' information relevant to their health. Some arguments for limiting such a right appeal to potential burdens on others that a patient's avoidable ignorance might generate. This paper develops this argument by extending it to cases where refusal of relevant information may generate greater demands on a publicly funded healthcare system. In such cases, patients may have an 'obligation to know'. However, we cannot infer from the fact that a patient has an obligation to know that she does not also have a right not to know. The right not to know is held against medical professionals at a formal institutional level. We have reason to protect patients' control over the information that they receive, even if in individual instances patients exercise this control in ways that violate obligations.

Keywords: autonomy; informed consent.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't