The medical visit context of treatment decision-making and the therapeutic relationship

Health Expect. 2000 Mar;3(1):17-25. doi: 10.1046/j.1369-6513.2000.00073.x.


The ascendance of the autonomy paradigm in treatment decision-making has evolved over the past several decades to the point where few bioethicists would question that it is the guiding value driving health-care provider behaviour. In achieving quasi-legal status, decision-making has come to be regarded as a formality largely removed from the broader context of medical communication and the therapeutic relationship within which care is delivered. Moreover, disregard for individual patient preference, resistance, reluctance, or incompetence has at times produced pro forma and useless autonomy rituals. Failures of this kind, have been largely attributed to the psychological dynamics of the patients, physicians, illnesses, and contexts that characterize the medical decision. There has been little attempt to provide a framework for accommodating or understanding the larger social context and social influences that contribute to this variation. Applying Paulo Freire's participatory social orientation model to the context of the medical visit suggests a framework for viewing the impact of physicians' communication behaviours on patients' capacity for treatment decision-making. Physicians' use of communication strategies can act to reinforce an experience of patient dependence or self-reliance in regard to the patient-physician relationship generally and treatment decision-making, in particular. Certain communications enhance patient participation in the medical visit's dialogue, contribute to patient engagement in problem posing and problem-solving, and finally, facilitate patient confidence and competence to undertake autonomous action. The purpose of this essay is to place treatment decision-making within the broader context of the therapeutic relationship, and to describe ways in which routine medical visit communication can accommodate individual patient preferences and help develop and further patient capacity for autonomous decision-making.