Medical Decision Making for Patients Without Proxies: The Effect of Personal Experience in the Deliberative Process


Allyson L. Robichaud


      The number of admissions to hospitals of patients without a proxy decision maker is rising. Very often these patients need fairly immediate medical intervention for which informed consent­­—or informed refusal—is required. Many have recommended that there be a process in place to make these decisions, and that it include a variety of perspectives. People are particularly wary of relying solely on medical staff to make these decisions. The University Hospitals Case Medical Center recruits community members from its Ethics Committee to serve on a subcommittee, the Patients Without Proxies (PWP) Committee, which works with medical staff during the decision-making process for these patients. Generally, the community members go to the bedside to observe patients.

      This article looks at how those unused to observing hospitalized patients who are sick and/or dying are affected, comparing them to mock jurors in a research study who are exposed to graphic photographs related to a fabricated crime scene. Judgments made by the mock jurors are affected by viewing such images. The personal experience of witnessing unfamiliar and shocking scenes affects their subsequent judgments. While it may be difficult to tease out whether observing patients causes PWP members to be benefited or harmed, they are affected by what they see. If a variety of perspectives is desirable to reduce possible bias or error, this article argues that at least one community member should refrain from seeing the patient in order to add a different and valuable voice to the decision-making process.

      Members of the subcommittee base their judgments on the various kinds of information available. Sometimes the things they see, hear, or feel may affect them particularly deeply, and affect their judgments as well. In this article I explore the idea that something like this may be happening in a particular kind of clinical ethics case consultation.



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