Shared decision-making approaches, by recognizing the autonomy and responsibility of both health professionals and patients, aim for an ethical 'middle way' between 'paternalistic' and 'consumerist' models of clinical decision making. Shared decision making has been understood in various ways. In this paper, we distinguish narrow and broader conceptions of shared decision making and explore their relative strengths and weaknesses. In the first part of the paper, we construct a summary characterization of an archetypal narrow conception of shared decision making (a conception that does not coincide with any specific published model but which reflects features of a variety of models). We show the shortcomings of such a conception and highlight the need to broaden out our thinking about shared decision making if the ethical (and instrumental) goals of shared decision making are to be realized. In the second part of the paper, we acknowledge and explore the advantages and disadvantages of operating with broader conceptions of shared decision making by considering the analogies between health professional-patient relationships and familiar examples of 'open-ended' relationships (e.g. friendships). We conclude by arguing that the illustrated 'trade-offs' between narrow conceptions (which may protect patients from inappropriately paternalistic professionals but preclude important forms of professional support) and broad conceptions (which render more forms of professional support legitimate but may require skills or virtues that not all health professionals possess) suggest the need to find ways, in principle and in practice, of taking seriously both patient autonomy and autonomy-supportive professional intervention.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.