OBJECTIVES: To study some ethical problems created by accession of a previously nomadic and traditional society to modern invasive medicine, by assessment of physicians' attitudes towards sharing information and decision-making with patients in the setting of a serious illness. DESIGN: Self-completion questionnaire administered in 1993. SETTING: Riyadh, Jeddah, and Buraidah, three of the largest cities in Saudi Arabia. SURVEY SAMPLE: Senior and junior physicians from departments of internal medicine and critical care in six hospitals in the above cities. RESULTS: A total of 249 physicians participated in the study. Less than half (47%) indicated they provided information on diagnosis and prognosis of serious illnesses all the time. Physicians who were more senior and those who spoke Arabic fared better than other groups. The majority (75%) preferred to discuss information with close relatives rather than patients, even when the patients were mentally competent. Most of the physicians (72%) felt patients had the right to refuse a specific treatment modality, and 68% denied patients the right to demand such a treatment if considered futile. Further analysis showed that physicians' attitudes varied along a spectrum from passive (25%) to paternalistic (21%) with the largest group (47%) in a balanced position. CONCLUSIONS: In traditional societies where physicians are regarded as figures of authority and family ties are important, there is a considerable shift of access to information and decision-making from patients to their physicians and relatives in a manner that threatens patients' autonomy. Ethical principles, wider availability of invasive medical technology and a rise in public awareness dictate an attitude change.
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