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Posted on March 10, 2015 at 6:03 AM

One of the challenges clinicians must learn to manage is the patient who does not adhere to medical recommendations while expressing the desire to be well. It is widely accepted that patients with the capacity to make informed decisions retain the right to make choices that are good for them and choices that are not, there are instances where capacity to make a choice becomes less relevant than the practical considerations related to achieving the patient’s goals. When patients state they wish to recover from illness but refused to comply with the necessary treatments this disconnect poses a different kind of dilemma. Morally, it is simpler to digest that that some patients will refuse treatment, and there is robust support for respecting refusals. But what do we do when a patient asks for one thing but does another? Such cases pose intractable impasses for providers who arrange care plans based on the patient’s stated goals of recovery, yet encounter what seem to be enigmatic refusals to adhere to recommendations and interventions. There is a clear obligation to attempt to understand the patient’s perspective and thoroughly as possible. What may appear to be inconsistencies in preference may very well have a logical explanation. Once efforts to unpack dissonant expressions have been exhausted, a different approach may be needed to figure out what may be possible for such a patient. The first question is often about capacity – does a patient who asks for one thing but does another possess the ability to make an informed decision? In some cases, the resolution ends here if the patient is found to be unable to make an informed decision – or does it? If the objection is strong, and the intervention requires a high degree of cooperation from the patient, capacity may be moot because there is no practical way to proceed without cooperation. For example, a patient who insists she does not want to die, but simultaneously resists life sustaining dialysis leaves providers with very few options. A patient receiving a temporary intervention to buy time for recovery may in fact, not achieve the desired healing – how long must a bridge therapy continue? In such cases, capacity may be part of the picture, but I would argue it sometimes becomes a red herring we chase instead of taking a hard look at the medical facts and practical considerations in such cases. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website. 

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