“She Just Doesn’t Know Him Like We Do”: Illuminating Complexities in Surrogate Decision Making


Margot M. Eves and Bryn S. Esplin


      When patients are not able to speak for themselves, surrogate decision makers are asked to guide treatment decisions and formulate a plan of care in accordance with what the patients would have wanted. This necessitates an exploration into the patients’ views about life and how it should be lived, how the patients constructed their identity or life story, and their attitudes towards sickness and suffering. When an individual appoints a surrogate, such as a healthcare power of attorney, a common presumption is that this designation evinces merit. This obscures the possibility of multiple other considerations that influence individual choice. This article presents a clinical case in which the claim to know someone best created a controversy that brought treatment decisions to a standstill. Further, it illuminates how the question, “Given the current medical condition, what would this person want?” risks presuming that a singular, unambiguous preference exists and that one person can provide the answer. Clinical ethicists can play a vital role in situations when there is a dispute among a designated surrogate and family members over a patient’s preference. By embracing the complexity of the desire to synthesize seemingly irreconcilable perspectives about identity, uncovering the reasons that underlie disagreement, and guiding inquiry in such a way that allows stakeholders to move beyond the conflict, clinical ethicists can facilitate decision making that honors the patient and may mitigate moral distress.


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