Autonomy: The Patient is the Patient – the family isn’t

    Many patients facing illness or disease that places their lives at risk do not generally ask why their life is at an end. Instead they often ask, “Why did I live at all?”  “What difference did my life make? It is remarkable how disempowered one feels when seriously ill. Dr Paulina Taboada, describes it:

     “Indeed, perhaps the most devastating aspect of despair is the inability to find meaning.” 

    When we become weak, confused and exhausted we often enter into a void where our thoughts and decisions are distanced from us. As football coach Vince Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Many find it easy to say: “whatever you think is best” to their doctor. And, many physicians are accustomed to hearing that.  Suggestions or directives from physicians carry great deal of weight for both the patient and family. But it is not for a physician to take on the dual role of doctor and decision maker.

It may seem easier for a physician to say what her patient “should do,” or state what “she would do” if she were the patient. It may be less awkward and unnerving to merely ask “what does the family want to do?” It may seem easier for a bioethicist to act as a mediator to find a meeting point between doctor and patient or surrogate point of view as to what the patient would want if we could ask her today.  The patient at all times must be the patient – whether competent or incompetent, conscious or unconscious the patient’s wishes are of paramount importance.

Physicians must be mindful of the fact that family members are not their patients, and It is not a physician’s job to please  family and friends.

The Supreme Court of California stated:

A doctor might well believe that an operation or form of treatment is desirable or necessary, but the law does not permit him to substitute his own judgment for that of the patient by any form of artifice …  Our conclusion that the patient’s choice must be respected regardless of the doctor’s judgment does not denigrate professional standards of care. Rather, it attests to their continuing and critical importance in maximizing the broader precept of self-determination that transcends a particular course of treatment. 

                5 Cal. 4th 725; July 26, 1993, Decided

"If a right exists, it matters not what "motivates" its exercise.  We find nothing in the law to suggest the right to refuse medical treatment may be exercised only if the patient’s motives meet someone else’s approval."
Bouvia v. The Superior Court (1986) Court of Appeals of California; 179 Cal. App. 3d 112


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