Letting the Conscious But Incompetent, Non Terminally Ill, Patient Die

It must not be too easy to withhold life sustaining treatment from any patient. When it comes to a conscious patient, who is not suffering from a terminal illness, we have to be unquestionably sure we know what we are doing.
A consulting physician contacted me expressing great concern that a 60 year old female patient who would likely die without surgery was being discharged. He said, “The patient is not terminal and is treatable. She needs surgery to survive – probably amputation of one or both lower extremities. The family wants her to be discharged home for hospice care and be allowed to pass away comfortably. The primary treating physician agrees with the family that this is best for her. This is not right.”

The primary treating physician explained to me that he had been caring for this patient for many years. She has little understanding of her underlying disease.  Her affect is flat.  He thinks that she has complete occlusion of both popliteal arteries, gangrene, and will need an amputation of the left and possible the right leg.  She has well-controlled diabetes; and recurrent VRE infections. She has bilateral pneumonia and bacteremia. She does not have the capacity to make her own medical decisions. The family wants her to be discharged home under hospice care and allowed to die comfortably.

I interviewed the patient and asked if she wanted to go home: she said “yes.” I asked her if she understood that she would most likely need to have an amputation of one or both of her legs if she was to survive. She said, ” if it is needed so I do not die – yes, I want that.”  I asked her questions about her life and family. She answered all questions appropriately, albeit with a slow response and little emotion. Her son, the surrogate decision maker, felt that she would refuse further treatment “if she understood things.”

I urged a psychiatric (was she suffering from a major depressive disorder, negative or positive family experiences, expectations of family vis a vis her illness) and neurologic consult (was she suffering from some transient mental confusion, was any medication she was taking impacting her ability to communicate or consider her options, would waiting help?)  be ordered. A consulting physician asked for an infectious disease consult. (was she suffering from metabolic encephalopathy accounting for her flat affect etc.). Thereafter a bioethics meeting could be arranged to consider all opinions to gain a overall understanding of her cognitive state. Physicians could ask questions of the family and vice versa.

A psychiatrist determined that the patient did not understand the nature and risks of her medical condition and therefore lacked capacity to make any decisions. Accordingly, her request for the surgery could be disregarded.  I discussed with him the fact that she was a non terminal patient who was conscious and responding to questions. He responded that the patient’s son’s demands for discharge without further care were “perfectly reasonable and appropriate under the circumstances” as her care would be an incredible burden on the family.

The primary treating physician agreed, explaining that he was overwhelmed with the complex and unrelenting medical problems that this patient had endured. It was clear to me that he cared deeply for this patient and had struggled desperately in treating her over the years.  No further consults were ordered and the patient was summarily released from the hospital within moments of the conclusion of the psychiatric evaluation, without any further dialogue.

Ethical issues & Legal requirements:

Case law, legislation, bioethics protocols and literature have grappled, for many years now, over how best approach terminating or withholding life sustaining treatment. Most cases have confronted situations where a patient is in a persistent vegetative state, or a terminally ill patient who could avoid needless suffering and prolongation of the process of death. For example, the California legislature passed into law §4650 of the Probate Code, declaring that “…The prolongation of the process of dying for a person for whom continued health care does not improve the prognosis for recovery may violate patient dignity, and cause unnecessary pain and suffering, while providing nothing medically necessary or beneficial.”

In the conscious but incompetent, non terminally ill patient, however, these concerns do not apply. Nor are there any concerns here regarding demands for treatments that are medically futile. So, what are the ethical and legal issues presented in this scenario? A “best interest” criteria seems inapposite.  We cannot ethically conclude that this patient’s best interests are served by allowing her to die. It may be seen as beneficial to her family to avoid the burden of physically and financially caring for her. Considerations of burden on families are important and relevant, but not a justification for death due to lack of treatment.

The basis for an autonomous refusal of further treatment requires a sufficient showing, at the least,  that the patient has a clear and comprehensive informed consent, as well as time for reflection and deliberation, while understanding that death will likely follow if treatment is stopped. Case law refers to this level of proof in this situation as “clear and convincing evidence.” There, however, is no showing here that this patient would, if “satisfactorily” competent, refuse treatment. The psychiatric exam that concluded that the patient did not understand the nature of her disease process and the risks of treatment (and non treatment), did not establish anything of value. Yet, this brief, psychiatric exam  was sufficient enough to allow this patient, over my strenuous objections and pleas to stop, to be put on a gurney and wheeled out of the hospital by her son within moments of the psychiatric exam, and with out a neurologic and infectious disease evaluation. This patient understood that if she did not have surgery she would die, and that she would require one or both of her legs amputated. She understood that and asked for surgery so she could live.  What more must be required of her?

The California Supreme Court, in the case of Conservatorship of Wendland, required a showing by a conservator, of "clear and convincing evidence" that an incompetent, non terminal patient, would want to die, before life sustaining treatment could be withdrawn.

The lesson of this post, and the point to remember, is that the greater the cognitive and medical condition of a patient, the greater the level of scrutiny that is required before life sustaining treatment can be withheld or withdrawn.  We can look at this by considering six basic categories of the condition of a patient:

1.    Terminal and Persistent Vegetative State (PVS);
2.    Terminal and Minimally Conscious;
3.    Terminal and Conscious;
4.    Non Terminal and PVS
5.    Non Terminal, and Minimally Conscious;
6.    Non Terminal, and Conscious    

At each level, our degree of concern and the absolute necessity to delve further into the medical, personal, ethical and legal bases for the decision must escalate.  Primary treating physicians have help available to properly and earnestly accomplish this. Consulting physicians, clinical bioethicists, hospital ethics committees, and if necessary, courts of law, are available to achieve an ethical, legal and life and death determination.

The greater the ambiguity the more need there is to err on the side of protecting the patient and to err on the side of life. Such an effort serves to protect the life of the patient and protect physicians and hospitals from potential liability.



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