Surrogate decision making: reconciling ethical theory and clinical practice

Ann Intern Med. 2008 Jul 1;149(1):48-53. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-149-1-200807010-00010.


The care of adult patients without decision-making abilities is a routine part of medical practice. Decisions for these patients are typically made by surrogates according to a process governed by a hierarchy of 3 distinct decision-making standards: patients' known wishes, substituted judgments, and best interests. Although this framework offers some guidance, it does not readily incorporate many important considerations of patients and families and does not account for the ways in which many patients and surrogates prefer to make decisions. In this article, the authors review the research on surrogate decision making, compare it with normative standards, and offer ways in which the 2 can be reconciled for the patient's benefit.

MeSH terms

  • Advance Directives
  • Caregivers / psychology
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Family* / psychology
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Mental Competency*
  • Physician's Role