Evaluating Decision-Making Capacity: When a False Belief about Ventilators Is the Reason for Refusal of Life-Sustaining Treatment


Devora Shapiro and Georgina Morley


In this article, we discuss the case of Michael Johnson, an African-American man who sought treatment for respiratory distress due to COVID-19, but who was adamant that he did not want to be intubated due to his belief that ventilators directly cause death. This case prompted reflection about the ways in which a false belief can create uncertainty and complexity for clinicians who are responsible for evaluating decision-making capacity (DMC). In our analysis, we consider the extent to which Mr. Johnson demonstrated capacity according to each of Appelbaum’s criteria. Although it was fairly clear that Mr. Johnson lacked DMC on the basis of both understanding and appreciation, we found ourselves reflecting upon the false belief that seemed to motivate his refusal. This led us to further consider the ways in which our current social and political environment can complicate evaluations of patients’ preferences and reasons for declining life-sustaining interventions. In particular, we consider the impact of the role of misinformation and systemic racism in preparing the grounds for false beliefs.


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