Dialysis or conservative care for frail older patients: ethics of shared decision-making

Nephrol Dial Transplant. 2013 Nov;28(11):2717-22. doi: 10.1093/ndt/gft245. Epub 2013 Jun 19.


Increasing numbers of frail elderly with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and multiple comorbidities are undertaking dialysis treatment. This has been accompanied by increasing dialysis withdrawal, thus warranting investigation into why this is occurring and whether a different approach to choosing treatment should be implemented. Despite being a potentially life-saving treatment, the physical and psychosocial burdens associated with dialysis in the frail elderly usually outweigh the benefits of correcting uraemia. Conservative management is less invasive and avoids the adverse effects associated with dialysis, but unfortunately it is often not properly considered until patients withdraw from dialysis. Shared decision-making has been proposed to allow patients active participation in healthcare decisions. Through this approach, patients will focus on their personal values to receive appropriate treatment, and perhaps opt for conservative management. This may help address the issue of dialysis withdrawal. Moreover, shared decision-making attempts to resolve the conflict between autonomy and other ethical principles, including physician paternalism. Here, we explore the ethical background behind shared decision-making, and whether it is genuinely in the patient's best interests or whether it is a cynical solution to encourage more patients to consider conservative care, thus saving limited resources.

Keywords: conservative care; ethics; frail elderly; shared decision-making.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Decision Making / ethics*
  • Frail Elderly*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / psychology
  • Kidney Failure, Chronic / therapy*
  • Patient Participation*
  • Renal Dialysis / ethics*
  • Renal Dialysis / psychology